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Baby Boom: Kingdom Campaigns For Fewer Kids

February 2, 1988

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) _ Mohammed Omar cuddles a young grandson and surveys his burgeoning brood, convinced that God, not government, should decide the size of a family.

″I wish I could have more children,″ says Omar, father of 21 and grandfather of 40. ″My two wives are too old to get pregnant now and I’m thinking of getting married again.″

Families like Omar’s are common in this Middle East kingdom, where married women average seven children and even King Hussein, married four times, has a dozen kids.

Now, however, officials have decided to tackle the big-family tradition, urging birth control and family planning while walking a fine line between religion and reality.

Jordan, with 2.7 million people, has a fertility rate second only to Kenya

and a yearly population growth rate of 3.8 percent, Health Minister Zaid Hamzeh said.

The kingdom experienced explosive economic growth in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now, however, it’s struggling to find jobs for a labor force growing by nearly 5 percent a year, swollen both by the birth rate and an influx of working women.

″Our experience with large families is exciting. We love big families,″ said Haifa al-Bashir, President of the Jordanian Women’s Federation.

Mrs. Bashir, who has six children, said Jordanians believe that a child is ″barakeh,″ or a gift from God.

But she said ″higher standards of living are possible only with smaller families.″

The Women’s Federation and the Health Ministry, using seminars and newspaper articles, launched a campaign several months ago to curtail the birth rate both as an economic and health consideration.

″We want healthy mothers and healthy babies, not sick mothers with a lot of kids,″ Hamzeh said.

The fertility fight, however, is up against deeply held religious views. Islam, as interpreted by Jordanian scholars, permits men to have as many as four wives at once, although most Jordanians only have one. Some Islamic scholars maintain that more than four wives are permitted.

The health ministry and women’s federation are stressing ″child spacing″ rather than birth control or population reduction, touchy subjects in this conservative society.

Hamzeh said child spacing among educated women had helped Jordan reduce its infant mortality rate from 120 per 1,000 to 50 per 1,000 in nine years.

The authorities also have offered free contraceptive pills and intrauterine devices through its 119 mother-and-child care centers since 1972.

Jordan’s mufti, or chief Islamic authority, has approved the child spacing efforts, although abortion is forbidden.

At a recent seminar on child spacing, the mufti, Sheik Izzeddin Tamimi, said contraceptives are not religiously forbidden as long as they do not affect fertilized eggs.

But moral doubts about some birth control methods remain.

Sheik Mohammed Shakra, a Moslem religious scholar, said some contraceptives are religiously improper, such as the internal uterine device because it ″exposes the woman to a male doctor.

″Birth is legitimized by God in order to keep mankind existing until resurrection,″ he said. ″We cannot alter heavenly regulations.″

″This is God’s will,″ agrees Omar, a 60-year-old construction workers who shares a five-room house in Sakeb, a village 74 miles north of Amman, with his wives Samiha and Fatima and 21 of his children and grandchildren.

Omar supports his family on an income of about $450 a month. He said all his children attend school and three have graduated from universities.

But although one of Omar’s sons, 17-year-old Zuheir, said he likes his large family, population control may rest with the next generation.

″It’s very noisy,″ said Zuheir. ″You never have privacy here. I’ll never have this many kids.″

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