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Staying Alive: Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines

by Nina Somera

Myrna Castelo, 38 counts herself as one of Manila’s urban poor. Last Christmas was a blessing as she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She could have lost her baby as the city’s health centre refused her, saying that this was already her eighth pregnancy and therefore, she should have prepared beforehand. She delivered her child in their small shack, promising again to herself that this will be her last.

Myrna’s story is just one of the founding blocks behind the Reproductive Health bill (House Bill 5043) that is now being debated at the Philippines’ House of Representatives. Her story is indeed backed by past and recent academic studies and surveys on reproductive health, family planning and sex education, which are also among the bill’s most contentious provisions.

In 2008, 54 per cent of 3.4 million pregnancies are unwanted. Such unwanted pregnancies resulted in 560,000 induced abortions. While women’s wanted fertility is 3.8 per cent, actual fertility stood at 5.9 per cent, with a third of all births having short spacing. Meanwhile 45 per cent of people of reproductive age had unmet needs in terms of pills, intra-uterine device and other reproductive health information and services. Similarly, more than 23 per cent of young people, ages 15 to 24, have had early sexual intercourse but lacked access to reproductive health information and services.

As University of the Philippines Population Institute Prof. Josefina Cabigon remarked, “These data only shows the insufficient protection against the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.” Citing the National Demographics Health Survey (NDHS), which is conducted every four years, economist Ernesto Pernia added that, “The poor have been asking for a reproductive health policy since 1968.” The World Health Organisation (WHO) also revealed that maternal mortality rate in the country is pegged at 1 to 100 births, compared with another staunchly Catholic Ireland, with 1 to 48,000 births.

House Bill 5043 has been branded as anti-life, accused of promoting abortion. The bill, however, is clear: “While nothing in this Act changes the law on abortion, as abortion remains a crime and is punishable, the government shall ensure that women seeking care for post-abortion complications shall be treated and counseled in a humane, non-judgmental and compassionate manner.”

House Bill 5043 principal author Representative Edcel Lagman is confident that the present Congress will pass the bill, which had been repeatedly filed in previous government administrations and congressional calendars, given the pressure of the Catholic Church.

Asked about the present conditions that can allow passage of the bill, Lagman pointed out the general pulse of the population, the support of other churches, the Senate and the Cabinet: “There is a realisation that the bill is long overdue. There is now a wide multi-sectoral support, which was not pronounced before. Catholic Church is not united. Many are silent but supportive but generally, it is ambivalent. A very similar bill is also being readied at the Senate. All Cabinet members are supportive except the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR),” he explained.

DENR is headed by Lito Atienza, Manila’s former mayor who imposed natural family planning, banning contraceptives and other reproductive health services for eight years. He is a close ally of the Catholic Church. Today, a class suit against him is pending as the policy has grossly affected the city’s residents, 70 per cent living below the poverty. Moreover, Manila has become a case for political will for reproductive health as well as a demystification of the Catholic Church’s political power.

In the latest national survey by the Social Weather Station, 90 per cent agrees that the city must provide reproductive health services while 88 percent believes that a policy on reproductive health is in order. Sixty-two per cent of the respondents, mostly Catholics shares that the church has indeed been interfering in the affairs of the government, particularly in the issues of reproductive health and family planning.

As of 2008, 67 out of 122 local chief executives have created reproductive health policies and programmes. Sixty-four of them are using their own budgets. Lagman shared, “It is a shame that the national government is lagging behind local government units in reproductive health policies. In any case, it is still better to have a national and comprehensive law. Whatever the idiosyncracies of local government officials are, there will always be reproductive health policies and programmes.”

Although Lagman is hopeful, some feminists expressed fear over the delaying tactics of some politicians. This concern is also bolstered by the upcoming national elections, as politicians tend to kowtow to demands of possible allies. Lagman nonetheless assured, “The prospects are encouraging. We have sufficient numbers but it is a matter of time.” The bill needs to be approved by two-thirds of the current 238 members of the House.

He also downplayed the kingmaking power of the Church, citing surveys saying that 70 per will vote for candidates who support the reproductive health bill. “When I won the post, I felt that I did not defeat the opposition but the Catholic hierarchy. There is no Catholic vote.”

Lagman was among the guest speakers in the forum, Academe Meets Government on the Reproductive Health Bill was organised by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines on 6 March 2009 in Quezon City, Philippines.

Sources:
Interview with Myrna Castelo on 21 January 2009 in Del Pan, Manila, Philippines.
Centre for Reproductive Rights. (30 January 2009). “Filipino Women and Men Sue Manila Mayor For Ban on Contraception .”
Mangahas, Mahar. (7 March 2009). “Surveys of Manila and Parañaque on RH Bill
Social Weather Station . (2009). “SWS February 2009 Special Survey in Paranaque City: February 14-17, 2009.”

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