Egypt Pursues Family Planning
Attitudes within Roman Catholicism and Islam play a significant role when nations try to lower birthrates
MUHAMMAD SAYEED TANTAWI'S office overlooks one of the infamous landmarks of this overcrowded city: a cemetery, the "city of the dead," home to hundreds of thousands of living people who have no other home. A mufti, or religious scholar, he speaks with authority as an interpreter of doctrine for most of the world's 1 billion Muslims.Skip to next paragraph
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"Islam provides no opposition to controlling birth. There is no Koranic verse which forbids family planning," says the robed cleric. "This is a decision between husband and wife."
Throughout the 1,400-year history of Islam, the world's second-largest faith, children have been considered one of the greatest blessings of Allah. The religion's long tradition, based on the Prophet Muhammad's injunction to "marry and have children," is one reason why large families have usually been the rule in Muslim nations.
But in the realm of Islam, as in Roman Catholic countries, old teachings are bumping up against the hard realities of population trends that have fundamentally altered daily life. Responding to new circumstances, senior Muslim clerics, like Dr. Tantawi, are accenting a side of Islam, expounded by various Muslin scholars, that is more conducive to family planning. As governments in the Muslim world step up to the task of bringing population growth under control, religious leaders have become crucial allie s.
"You can't disregard the fact that you have to get Islamic support. We couldn't have gotten started without it," says Aziza Hussein, founder and chairman of the Cairo Family Planning Association. "If Islamic leaders know the size of the population problem, they have to back family planning, because Islam says you have to do what's in the interest of the community."
For Egypt, the issue of overpopulation is no academic matter. Most of its 56 million people are squeezed into a thin strip of fertile land bordering the Nile River that is barely twice the size of the state of New Hampshire. One million more are added every eight months as the nation races toward the 100-million mark by the year 2020.
Belatedly convinced that overpopulation would overwhelm modest economic growth, Egypt launched its family-planning program in 1965. Since then, fertility rates have dropped from an average of six children per family to four, while contraceptive use has risen to more than 40 percent of couples - a success story that, with the indispensable support of religious leaders, has been approximated in some other Islamic nations.
Spurred by the example of its prosperous East Asian neighbors, Indonesia - the world's largest Muslim nation - has implemented the most successful family-planning program in the Islamic world. The backing of the country's Muslim leaders was gained when the government agreed to omit abortion and sterilization as family-planning methods.
In post-Khomeini Iran, high birthrates and deteriorating economic conditions have led to a massive government campaign to curb population growth. Where mullahs once claimed contraception was a plot by the toppled Shah, many now find support for family planning in the Koran.
The message that birth control is consistent with Islam has been slow to trickle down to local mosque imams, or preachers, many of whom, to the consternation of family-planning agencies, still counsel that limiting family size contravenes Muhammad's teachings. "The problems are so obvious now that nobody with any common sense will pay any attention to this advice," says Ms. Hussein.