Bioethics Forum Essay
Theocracy Is Closer Than It Appears
On a cloudy afternoon this month, in my home in western Pennsylvania, a headline catches my eye: A federal judge in Texas suspended FDA approval of mifepristone. This abortion-inducing drug has been on the market for more than 20 years. Although the decision is presented with a secular and legal façade, like other recent antiabortion court rulings and legislation, a solid religious motive is at play.
My memory takes me to another cloudy afternoon in the fall of 2008 in Tehran. In my medical ethics class for medical students, I was explaining secular philosophical arguments on the morality of abortion at different stages of embryonic development. A student raised her hand. Her hijab showed she was pro-government, an observing Muslim, or both. I let her speak. She said: “You are talking about the philosophical arguments on the morality of abortion. But human beings have a creator. And, like a manufacturer that issues a manual for the appliances it produces, our creator has sent a clear guideline for us to follow. So, isn’t it better to seek answers about abortion from that guideline rather than faulty manmade philosophies?”
That student was not asking a question. She was warning me politely. A decade ago, the founding leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, in his will, asked Muslim students to rise up against professors who promoted Western ideas. His instruction was explicit: Ask the school officials to remove them. If they hesitate, act yourself!
Theocracy did not capture the political sphere of Iran overnight. The Islamists did not appear to be self-righteous and authoritarian at first. For decades before the 1979 revolution, leaders and theorists of political Islam tried to engage in secular arguments and prove the compatibility of their ideas with modern science and progressive ideologies. Even in the first months after the revolution, many argued that the Islamic Republic would not impose Sharia on the private spheres of people’s lives. They asserted that under an Islamic government, wearing a hijab would not be forced on women, and people opposed to the Islamic government, even communists, would be free to express their ideas. All these promises turned out to be false as soon as Islamists seized power. Since then, they have been imposing the “will of God” and the righteous way of life on people, especially women.
Like other proponents of religious biopolitics, Islamists are pro-natalists. Shortly after the revolution, Islamists in the government terminated all family planning programs. They banned abortion. Shortly thereafter, a more pragmatic sector of the government, alarmed by rapid population growth and the shortage of educational and health resources, tried to reinstate a new version of population control. In response to the high rate of illegal abortion, the Islamic parliament passed the Therapeutic Abortion Act in 2005. Under that law, abortion was permitted within the first four months of pregnancy if a pregnant woman requested it and three physicians confirmed a major fetal health risk or an unbearable difficulty for the woman because of her pregnancy.
However, these relatively liberal reforms were temporary. The subsequent dominance of more fundamentalist Islamists in the government prompted a reversal. On October 16, 2021, Ebrahim Raisi, the president of Iran, signed a new law titled “The Rejuvenation of the Population and Protection of the Family.” This law required abortion decisions to be made in a religious court rather than a medical clinic. While physicians must be consulted to approve the medical necessity of the abortion, the court, presided over by a male graduate of an Islamic seminary, makes the decision. It is not surprising that a few days ago, President Raisi expressed his concern about the high rates of illegal abortion in the country.
The current “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement is a new step in Iranians’ long and bloody journey to free themselves of religious biopolitics and regain their personal liberties. A theocracy, once looked upon as too far away to be concerned about, is now too strong to get rid of easily and without bloodshed.
In his book, Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm gives a psychoanalytic expatiation of why human beings tend to obey a patriarchal figure rather than take the responsibility of making difficult autonomous decisions in a democracy. He explains how that human tendency was one of the reasons behind the fall of the culturally rich and civilized nation of Weimar Germany to the authoritarian dictatorship of Nazis.
Today, Western nations look at the tyranny of authoritarianism, from the Inquisition to Fascism, as if it is in the side mirror of their collective memory: events that happened too long ago to be of concern. However, objects in a car’s side mirrors are closer than they appear. A judge’s ruling in Amarillo, Texas, may soon have a bearing upon the reproductive freedom of women on New York’s Upper West Side.
That’s why in his masterpiece The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry warns inhabitants of planet Earth about the danger of baobab trees. “You must see to it that you pull up regularly all the baobabs at the very first moment when they can be distinguished from the rose bushes which they resemble so closely in their earliest youth.”
The metaphor is clear but worth making explicit. Ideologies such as religious fanaticism in the modern world are like baobab trees on a small planet. At first, they resemble flowers or fruit trees. However, if you keep ignoring their danger, they will become invasive enough to tear the whole planet apart. As a bioethicist who escaped Iran’s theocracy, it pains me to see the sprouting of baobab trees on America’s democratic soil, a country that has provided me with refuge and opportunity. As a grateful American citizen, I feel a duty to warn about the threat of religious biopolitics dominating the public sphere. I lived in the shadow of a baobab tree for too long. I prefer the sunshine of secular democracy.
Acknowledgment: The author of this paper would like to express his gratitude to Professor Joseph J. Fins for his helpful and constructive comments.
Kiarash Aramesh, MD, PhD, is a faculty member and the director of the James F. Drane Bioethics Institute at PennWest University in Edinboro, Pa.