Tehran (AFP) - A bill aimed at encouraging more births by outlawing sterilisation and vasectomies has passed a first reading in Iran's parliament, media reported on Wednesday.
Iran, which for more than two decades encouraged birth control, is now concerned at the slowing of its annual population growth rate, which stood at 1.2 percent last year, the lowest in the region.
According to health ministry figures, Iran's fertility rate is 1.8 percent, which a UN study said is leading to a rapidly ageing Iranian population.
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has urged parliament to pass laws that will ensure a higher birth rate, with the aim of doubling the population from a current 77 million to 150 million within 50 years.
The bill passed its first reading in parliament on Tuesday with the support of 106 of the 207 MPs present, according to the Iran daily.
The report added however that some MPs were opposed to the criminalisation of sterilisation and the law was sent back to parliament's health committee for modification.
The bill sets out punishments ranging from two to five years in prison for non-authorised operations such as vasectomy, tying of fallopian tubes and other forms of sterilisation, and abortion.
Currently abortion is outlawed in Iran except in special cases but the other operations are permitted.
According to latest available figures, some 3.5 million Iranians benefited from health ministry programmes aimed at preventing pregnancies in 2011-2012.
In this period, 1.3 million women received contraceptive pills distributed by the government, 550,000 received contraceptive injections while 70,000 underwent tubal ligation. Around 30,000 men underwent vasectomies.
Iranian officials have expressed alarm at the ageing of the population, with an official at the national birth registry, Mohammad Nazemi Ardekani, warning in April that the population growth rate could fall to zero "within 30 years".
According to media reports, Iran's economic crisis and the difficulties of young couples to finance a home of their own are the main causes of the plunging birth rate.
Additionally, the divorce rate has reached 21 percent nationally, compared to 12 percent seven years ago, and 33 percent in the capital Tehran.