Iran’s birthrate has fallen. Is it because Iranian women have greater opportunity? Or is it a reaction to the Islamist regime?
Michelle Goldberg writes:
Of all the arguments that have ever been made about why the Iranian regime is uniquely uninterested in its own survival, the one my colleague Lee Smith offered up last week is one of the more preposterous. “It’s pretty easy to make a strong case that the Iranian regime really is suicidal,” he wrote, presenting three pieces of evidence. First, he mentioned Iranian support for Hezbollah. Then he discussed Iran’s willingness to sacrifice young men in the war with Iraq. (A war, incidentally, that Iraq started.) “Perhaps most tellingly,” Smith concluded, “the plummeting Iranian birthrate—from 6.5 children per woman a generation ago to 1.7 today— suggests that it is not just the regime, but an entire nation, that no longer wishes to live.”
One doesn’t have to be sanguine about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran to understand what a thin argument this is. For years now, conservatives have decried plummeting birthrates in Europe as evidence of the corrosive nature of secularism. “Europe is facing a demographic disaster,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2008. “That is the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life, and eroded morality.” That argument is wrong, but at least recognizes the connection between increased autonomy for women and decreased fertility.
I wrote a book about the politics of rising and falling fertility, The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. While researching it, I read a lot of right-wing articles about how decreasing birthrates in Europe would clear the way for a Muslim invasion. But no one besides Smith, to my knowledge, has ever described fertility decline as a symptom of jihadism.
After all, unstable societies shot through with violent religious fundamentalism tend to have extremely high fertility: Afghanistan’s birthrate is 5.39, Gaza’s is 4.74. Pakistan’s is 3.17. (All these numbers come from the CIA World Factbook, which lists Iran’s fertility as 1.88.) Developed, modernized countries, by contrast, have much lower fertility: 1.67 children per woman in Sweden, 1.47 children per woman in Spain, 1.41 children per woman in Germany. The fertility rate among American Jews is around 1.9, a number that would be much lower without the particularly fecund Hasidim.
As education and opportunities increase for women, fertility rates go down. That’s as true of Iran—where women now outnumber men by two to one in universities—as it is anywhere.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not happy about this development. After the Iranian revolution of 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adopted strongly pronatalist policies, but when rapid population growth started straining the economy, the regime reversed itself and began encouraging family planning. Ahmadinejad believes this has gone too far, and in 2006, as The Guardian reported, he “called for a baby boom to almost double the country’s population to 120 million and enable it to threaten the west.” Iranian women didn’t listen to him. It’s hard to see this as evidence of their willingness to sacrifice themselves in a mad religious war.
There is one oblique connection between religiosity and declining birthrates. Fertility tends to go down when economic opportunities for women increase. But in societies that don’t support women’s ambition to combine work and family, it can fall to levels that threaten a nation’s economic future. If having children forces women out of the workplace, some will forgo motherhood, or have fewer children than they might have wished. Thus, developed countries with strongly patriarchal attitudes are shrinking fast: The birthrate in Japan is 1.21, while Italy’s is 1.39.
In a 2003 report on population growth and pensions, Tory MP David Willetts wrote, “The evidence from Italy, and indeed Spain, is that a traditional family structure now leads to very low birth rates.” Countries like France and Sweden, by contrast, are shrinking much more slowly, because the generous benefits accorded to working women allow them to have more kids. “Feminism is the new natalism,” Willetts concluded. In this sense, Iranian women might have more babies if their society was more liberal. But the fact that Iran now has the same fertility rate as Chile and Iceland is still evidence of fitful modernization, not a national death wish.
Lee Smith responds:
Last week I wrote a column about the debate over the rationality of the Iranian regime. On one side of this policy debate are those who believe the regime is rational and therefore will pose little strategic threat to the United States and Israel should it acquire a nuclear weapon. On the other side are those who believe that the regime is irrational, and thus cannot be allowed to have the bomb since it cannot be deterred from using it. My conclusion was that the entire debate should be irrelevant to U.S. policy toward Iran, a country whose conduct—rational or not—already threatens our strategic interests and would surely become more threatening if bolstered by the bomb.
In order to illustrate both sides of the debate, I showed how one could argue—and some have argued—that the Iranian regime really is suicidal and even that the Iranian people as a whole had largely lost confidence and interest in the future that they are being offered by the mullahs. To that end, I suggested that rapidly declining birthrates in Iran could be taken as evidence that the Iranian people as a whole were choosing not to reproduce themselves, which in turn might suggest that, as a people, they preferred not to live.
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