Is there a difference between the concepts of family planning and birth control? [Archives:2008/1172/Viewpoint]

July 14 2008

Nadia Al-Saqqaf
Now that we are celebrating the World Population Day, many activities and awareness sessions are taking place around the republic advocating for family planning. The idea is to educate Yemenis to plan a better future for their families through spacing births and avoiding early and late pregnancies.

The use of contraceptives is advocated for this, and the good news is that they are becoming more popular, especially among young couples who realize the challenges of sustaining a family.

However, there remains a stigma attached to the concept of “Tahdeed Al-Nasl,” which roughly translates to “birth control.” This concept means defining the number of children you will have forever, for example, if a family decided to have four children, and then uses tubal ligation or vasectomy to indefinitely limit childbirth in the family.

Though most Yemenis do not accept this concept, they are inadvertently doing the same thing by planning a family. Women who prefer not to have any children after the age of 35 or 40 years old, continue to use contraceptives until they hit menopause. By doing this, they increase their risk of having late pregnancies. When this happens (and it often does), they continue with the pregnancy despite the risks it may have for both the mother and the child. They explain that it was “God's will.”

The difference is that when you use family planning, you are simply giving yourself time to breathe between pregnancies and to create a healthier environment for the mother and the children. Still, family planning this way could still lead to having many children, especially if the wife gets married at an early age. This is why the fertility rate in Yemen is among the highest in the world.

Yemenis believe they are serving God by having many children and obeying the Prophet's (pbuh) instructions. Some have also explained to me that limiting the number of children is a negative concept promoted by the West where there are decreasing birth rates. According to them, the West is afraid of our growing population and so it tries to impose birth control on us. This way we reduce the number of children and stop threatening world demographics, especially regarding Muslim immigrants in the West.

I also heard that in some families, they would rather have a temporary method of birth control than a permanent one in case one of the children dies and they want a replacement, or in case they change their minds after some years. Men refuse to get a vasectomy (although it can be reversed) because they think it somehow hurts their manhood. For women, they fear having their “tubes tied” because they fear their husbands might want another child after some time and hence would yield to taking a second wife for this purpose.

What I have realized is that family planning in Yemen is controlled by religious and social trends more than a health point of view. Obviously men dominate the issue and are the ultimate decision makers despite the fact that it is the women who have to bear the consequences.

The missing link is common sense. I am not advocating for a law that says everyone must have only three children – look at the problems in China – I am saying that Yemenis or at least the educated ones should try and put two and two together and realize that they should do what is best for their own families regardless of what the sheikh says.

After all, time has proven that the sheikh gets most of his information wrong, and most religious preachers, at least in Yemen, are unreliable sources even when it comes to what the religion stipulates about this issue.