Iran is in the grip of heated debate on whether homeless women who are addicted to drugs should be sterilized. The controversy began Dec. 27 after Shahrvand daily published images of homeless men and women sleeping in open graves in a cemetery near Shahriar, a small town in Tehran province. The story sent shockwaves across Iran and led to sharp exchanges between the administration of President Hassan Rouhani and its critics over the issues of poverty and corruption in Iranian society. Some officials called for sterilizing homeless women who are addicted to drugs as a solution, and there have been widely divergent reactions in Iran’s political and public spheres.
Those in favor of the idea argue that the children of mothers addicted to drugs won’t have a reasonable quality of life, as they will suffer from health complications, high mortality rates or even end up being sold in exchange for narcotics. Opponents of the proposal, however, point to ethical, legal and religious issues.
The idea of sterilizing homeless women who are addicted to drugs was first proposed in November 2015 by Fatemeh Daneshvar, the head of the social committee of the Tehran City Council. Daneshvar stated that these mothers sell their children, who are born with different medical problems, to gangs for 1 to 2 million rials ($30-$60). Daneshvar said, “Sterilization is not ethical, but we can provide these women with long-term contraception so they cannot get pregnant for six months or a year.”
In an interview with Shahrvand daily last August, Daneshvar also said that the Health Ministry was consulting with senior clerics about issuing a religious edict to approve of the sterilization of these women through methods such as tubal ligation.
However, in an interview with Al-Monitor, Mohammad Amin Ghaneirad, the head of the Iranian Sociological Association, said that while providing contraceptive methods to these women is a good idea, they should be temporary and only carried out if appropriate medical facilities are available. He said, “It should not be permanent, [as when] a doctor might advise a female patient to not get pregnant at the moment due to her physical condition when it could create problems for her and her baby’s health or even endanger their lives.”
Unofficial statistics widely circulated in Iranian media say there are about 3,000 homeless women, some as young as 15 years old, living on the streets of Tehran. These women are believed to often engage in prostitution, with some ending up getting pregnant and then selling their babies for drug money. While pregnant, they do not visit medical centers for fear of arrest. Prostitution is a crime in Iran and may lead to a death sentence if anyone involved is found to be married.
The debate on sterilization comes against the backdrop of the parliament’s May 2014 vote to ban abortions, vasectomies and tubal ligation as part of a plan to boost the population growth in Iran. The rate has been declining for the past two decades. Violations of the law are punishable by two to five years in prison.
Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi’s comments on the matter to Etemad in 2015 have suddenly regained pertinence. He said, “Instead of depriving women of their right to have children, we should support them through other means.”
The proposal to sterilize homeless women who are addicted to drugs seemed to have been put to rest with Hashemi’s remarks, but the idea was revisited after comments made by Shahindokht Molaverdi, the vice president for Women and Family Affairs, in a November 2015 interview with Mowj News were republished by Vatan-e-Emrooz and others in late December. Responding to a reporter’s question on whether the government has any plans to sterilize homeless drug addicts who are infected with HIV, Molaverdi had said, “The government has not yet offered any specific plans for sterilization of homeless women, and such plans should be proposed and reviewed by the Health Ministry. Discussions are underway, but any such program should be studied and discussed in detail by the experts and specialists. Sterilization should be carried out only with the consent of the woman. Surely such a plan will require careful examination, given the financial burden that these births impose on the country, although eliminating the [problem at its] roots seems to be the most suitable [solution].”
Two days after Shahrvand’s Dec. 27 feature on the “grave sleepers,” hard-line Vatan-e Emrooz published a piece about Molaverdi’s comments, “The Holocaust of the homeless; the inhumane suggestion of sterilizing the homeless by our seemingly open-minded vice president.”
Molaverdi responded in statement describing the report as a “distortion of reality aimed at damaging the government.” She also wrote, “Only the first part of my interview deals with the sterilization proposal, and I clearly stated that the government has no clear plans yet. The second part is about cardboard box sleepers, addiction and AIDS, and finding solutions that are more cost effective and less dangerous.”
In a Jan. 1 interview with the ILNA news agency, Siavash Shahrivar, head of the social and cultural affairs committee for the Tehran governorate, likened homeless women addicts to “incubators” and said, “These women deal drugs, consume drugs and also work as sex workers.” Shahrivar added that these women “should be convinced to undergo sterilization to prevent social problems.” His interview immediately caused further controversy and was deleted from the ILNA website only a few hours later.
Ghaneirad, the head of the Iranian Sociological Association, called sterilization a “humiliating” approach to the issue. He told Al-Monitor that these women face a variety of dangers that include homelessness, addiction, prostitution and different diseases, especially AIDS. In his view, these harms call for a more serious approach to the issue. He said, “Plans should be directed toward eradicating the phenomenon of sleeping in cardboard boxes. These people should not be in the streets [in the first place] to require sterilization to reduce the negative impact of sick children being born and sold.” He added, “There are financial resources and organizational potentials available. Perhaps there is still insufficient mental preparedness and our officials lack a sociological understanding. [However], this individualistic viewpoint about sterilization, that these women have a problem and they are responsible for it, must be eliminated. These women are in fact victims of our disordered social situation. Therefore, society is responsible for them.”