Family Planning and Islam

Point of View by Haleh Esfandiari, director, Middle East Program

May 02, 2005

The majority of governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been aware of the problems engendered by rapid population growth for several decades. More than half of all Muslims in the region are younger than 25, and providing them with education, health, employment, and other basic needs exerts enormous pressure on regional states.

Until the 1980s, regional governments exceedingly were cautious about overtly supporting family planning initiatives or promoting the use of contraceptives, for example, for fear of alienating those who argue that birth control is not compatible with Islamic principles.

Even as recently as 1994, regional representatives at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt were conservative in endorsing bold measures to legislate reproductive health. Yet, over the last two decades, more countries in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world gradually have begun to gradually introduce legislation aimed at slowing population growth and addressing not only the needs of women, but also the participation of men in national initiatives.

Muslim countries take various approaches toward reproductive health. Tunisia was among the first countries in the region to pass laws favoring family planning and the use of contraception, legalizing abortion, and strengthening women's rights during marriage and divorce. Morocco and Algeria took longer to respond to the realities of rapid population increase, but now promote family planning campaigns to make birth control available to women. In Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, the government secured the support of clerics to reduce the fertility rate from approximately 5.9 percent to about 2.6 percent.

Iran abolished an existing family planning program when the monarchy was overthrown in 1979, and the population almost doubled within two decades. The government subsequently reversed course and enlisted the clerical community for a successful campaign employing Islamic teachings in support of family planning, smaller families, and contraceptive use. The extensive campaign has succeeded in dramatically reducing the fertility rate. Iran's campaign has established once and for all the compatibility of Islamic teachings and reproductive health.

Consideration for the sense of dignity of regional peoples will make it more likely that local populations and their governments embrace such reproductive health programming. This sensitive and critical series has aimed to expose the Washington reproductive health community to some of these trends to improve on-the-ground programming.

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