Fertility rates and demography in both Iran and Australia have been in the headlines this month, particularly following the arrest of University of Melbourne academic and population expert Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi.
Hosseini-Chavoshi was arrested in Iran on charges of attempting to “infiltrate” state institutions. It’s caused shock among her colleagues and highlighted two important facts: there can be real danger for dual Iranian nationals returning to their country of origin, and the Iranian government is particularly sensitive on the issue of population policy.
Let’s examine the latter point.
What happens when baby booms bottom out?
As outlined in Hosseini-Chavoshi’s own publications, after a baby boom following the 1978 revolution, Iran’s Total Fertility Rate (TFR) fell during the 1990s due to a combination of factors including the rise in female education, increased urbanisation and decreased infant mortality — all of which are known to reduce birthrates. However, the expansion of state-funded family planning centres is widely regarded as the most significant factor in the reduction of Iran’s TFR to replacement levels by 2005. But as reports of Hosseini-Chavoshi’s arrest have noted and as her own research attests, government attitudes have shifted amid fears that the birth rate has dropped too far to support Iran’s post-revolution baby boomers as they age.
In 2012, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described the country’s population control measures as “a mistake”. The previously acclaimed network of family planning clinics has been wound back, government subsidies have been provided for additional births, and the legal age of marriage has been lowered.
In contrast to Catholicism, Islamic regulation of family planning is not based on the belief that life begins at conception, since the ruh (soul) is not considered to have entered the body until around four months after conception. Restrictions on access to contraception and early-term abortion, then, have been based on fears that it will lead to an increase in extra-marital sex as well as the belief by some Muslims that it contradicts the belief in predestination.
And as the case of Iran illustrates, demographic concerns may also lead to the regulation of contraception. Turkish President Erdogan has described birth control as “treason” and with demographic rivalry a powerful factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the late Palestinian Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat urged his countrymen to have “two for the parents and ten for the struggle”.
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Last week’s media coverage of Australia’s declining birth rates have shown how fertility is regarded as a matter of public concern in non-Muslim societies too. As The Australian’s headline pointed out, Australia’s fertility rate is now lower than it was in 2004, when former treasurer Peter Costello introduced the baby bonus with the call for Australians to have “one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country”.
Birth rates are now below replacement level, meaning that Australia must rely on migration in order to face the challenge of supporting a rapidly aging population. And as headlines in Nine papers point out, “migrant mums” from locations like Lebanon, Pakistan and Samoa are contributing more than their share to the national fertility rate.
The decline in birth rates ought to come as welcome news to overpopulation alarmists such as Dick Smith as well as the Sustainable Australia party, which managed to pick up a senate seat in the recent Victorian state election under the slogan “Better, not bigger”. However, for the conspiracy theorists who believe that Australia is experiencing a so-called “white genocide”, the reliance on young, fertile migrants to support the nation’s greying population represents their worst nightmare.
Demographics — Muslim demographics in particular — has become an obsession for the far-right globally. A 2017 election poster for the far-right Alternative for Germany party featured a smiling pregnant blonde woman along with the slogan “New Germans? We’ll make our own”. So, it’s no surprise that women and girls are held responsible for national and global demographics by under- and over-population scaremongers alike.
Female reproductive decisions are regular targets for moral panics, whether it’s teenage girls breeding too early in the irresponsible expectation that the taxpayer will cover the expense of raising their offspring or career women who breed too late in the selfish expectation that the taxpayer will cover the expense of the IVF treatments necessary to conceive their last-minute babies.
Demographic fear merchants escalate such concerns to the level of an existential crisis in which women are either failing to produce enough future taxpayers to support an aging population or producing so many future taxpayers and welfare recipients that the civilisation will collapse around our ears. It’s all a grand game of Choose-Your-Own-Apocalypse.