Philippines Reproductive Health Bill, Part 1

On May 26, I met with Red Tani, President of Filipino Freethinkers, whose group is very active in support of the Reproductive Health Bill. I asked him to talk about the bill and its chances for passage.

Red’s story

First of all, the Reproductive Health Bill three issues: reproductive health, responsible parenthood—a favorite phrase of President Benigno Aquino—and population and development. On a very fundamental level it’s about giving women the right to do what’s best for their own bodies and giving families the ability to choose how many children they’ll have. On a more social or macro level, it’s about how we as a country can regulate our population so it doesn’t become put a damper on the development plans we have. It’s also in line with the Philippine development goals of reducing maternal deaths or infant deaths. So it’s about having a quality of life beyond just surviving. And it’s about preventing unnecessary death, such as the eleven maternal deaths that happen every day due to childbirth complications of various kinds. In the year 2008 there were around 580,000 induced abortions. Of those 90,000 failed and put the life of the mother at risk. The women ended up in the hospital, and 1,000 actually died. These are the deaths we want to prevent, and we believe that contraception is the best way to do it. Even in other countries, when you increase the rate of effective contraception you lower the number of induced abortions. This has been proven across the board. So that’s what the RH Bill is about.

Women’s rights groups, population and development groups, both governmental and non-governmental organizations have been fighting for this bill or some other form of the bill for around sixteen years. It’s been delayed again and again by the conservative groups, namely the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and Pro-Life Philippines, one of the conservative Catholic groups, among others. Today the bill is the farthest along in the legislative process than it’s ever been. In Congress it’s being debated and interpellations [questions about parliamentary procedure] are going on, but there’s a danger of the bill being delayed further. That’s the tactic that anti-RH legislators have chosen to stick to.

They want the bill delayed indefinitely. They don’t want it to go to a vote because many of them think that we have the numbers right now. Of course the opposition interprets this not because of the merits of the bill, but because the pro-RH groups have a large foreign funding of some sort. So they like to bring out these imperialist plots and conspiracy theories all the time to distract people from what’s really going on. It’s interesting because in a third-world country they can’t use the Tea Party tactics, the right-libertarian tactics of individualism or “protective corporations.” People just won’t buy it here. So they’ve substituted this anti-imperialist rhetoric to rile up the people’s nationalist sympathies.

So that’s basically it. We’re in the middle of the debates, but the opposition is bringing up numerology. You’d think it was bad enough to bring up arguments about God and whether we’re a Catholic country or what version of Catholicism the Philippines is supposed to follow—the progressive Catholic countries or the Vatican or whatever. But then they bring up numerology, saying that the RH Bill, which is House Bill 4244, would cause misfortune because the number has all these 4’s in it. Four is supposed to be an unlucky number because in Chinese “four” [si] is a homophone of “death” [si]. So it’s turning into a circus, really. It can be entertaining to watch, but it’s really unfortunate that it’s come to this. These are the tactics that the anti-RH people are going to continue to use to get what they want, which is to delay its passage once again.

In 2009 we had a victory when the Magna Carta of Women was passed. But curiously that’s being used against the RH Bill. The opposition is saying that a number of the measures of the RH Bill are already covered in that law. They’ll really use anything.

Kenneth Keng, who was assaulted by a former Congressional candidate during RH proceedings

Our plans are, first of all, to raise the awareness of our members to what’s going on. We broadcast the sessions—live sometimes—we write about what’s happening inside, we inform the public. We encourage people to learn about the bill, to write to the legislators about their support. We really don’t have any problems regarding support. Between 68% and 71% of Filipinos believe the bill should be passed. We are also giving a voice to the silent majority. So we do that, but I think it’s more crucial to expose the dirty tricks the anti-RH legislators are using, like delaying the sessions and bringing up topics that are not really related and have already been discussed. They want to keep rehashing things ad nauseam just to waste time.

There are some legislative stipulations that say after a certain number of arguments or counter-arguments you can call for a vote. We hope to bring it to that. If we can’t civilly or respectfully ask them to be serious about discussing the merits of the bill, we hope that we can at least force a vote. Win or lose, we think that it’s time—just so we know how things really stand. If we lose, at least we have new information, rather than this standstill, this stalemate that’s been going on for more than a decade, almost two decades.

We hope to give the passage of the bill as a gift to all Filipinas, the whole country, but also to those who started this battle. They’re very old now, but some of them are still active in the movement. The principal author of the bill, Edcel C. Lagman, wouldn’t have run for office in the last election if the RH Bill had passed. But when he didn’t he said, “Let’s do this once more, and this is the time it’s going to pass.” We hope that it does pass for the sake of these people who have worked so hard for so long, and of course for the sake of the whole Philippines. I mean, it’s kind of pathetic, really, that it’s taken us so long to rein in all of the fundamentalist elements and work toward development. We will not reach our millennium development goal without the RH Bill. I think it’s our responsibility and it’s the responsibility of our legislators to work toward that. So we hope the bill comes to a vote before the end of the legislative session, which I think is in August. We hope that it goes to a vote then.

Yes, the anti-RH side is saying that the money is better spent on things like education and basic needs—food, shelter. We do have people saying that it’s too expensive. There are people who really believe that, and there are people who know the arguments and just use this because it’s effective. They claim that all of the money for the RH Bill will go to procuring contraceptives, which is not true. That’s just a small part of it. The money also goes for education, training of midwives, hospitals, facilities.

Access to birth control now depends on the province. Of course, there are richer provinces that subsidize these expenses more, but it’s not standard. And this is one of the problems which the RH Bill wishes to address. So it aims to have a hospital for approximately every 500,000 people. With this comes the provisions and the services. It’s not standard. There are many places where so many people have to share just one resource center.

Yes, you do need a prescription to buy a condom. We also fought against that ordinance in Ayala Alabang Village [a very prosperous area], which was the first barangay [community, local district] to implement such an ordinance. Among other things, a prescription is required for buying contraceptives, even condoms. It’s understandable to require a prescription for the birth control pill, but for all contraceptives, that’s too much. We went to the debates in Alabang, and we protested. The local ordinance was really an underhanded way of forwarding this anti-RH agenda. So the people behind it are also the people behind the whole anti-RH movement.

We have some good news. So far I think the provincial body which regulates barangays has already reached a decision that that we should drop this. This is not in accordance with our law, much less the national law that we are supposed to adhere to. So a happy ending is in sight there. But when this was happening in Alabang it spread to other barangays, like Bataan and Laguna. So I’m not sure of the status of these similar ordinances.

Also, there is the first-ever law in the City of Manila, where a very conservative mayor got out an ordinance, Executive Order 3, which makes acquiring contraceptives and information about birth control very difficult. The people who were opposed to it joined the RH bandwagon because they thought, “If we have the RH Bill, this ordinance will be eliminated anyway, right? So let’s just work for the RH.” But the RH hasn’t passed. It’s been delayed again and again, so the ordinance is still there.

In the Philippines abortion is always illegal, even in cases of rape and incest. You can never terminate a pregnancy. The farthest they are willing to go in the case of incest is emergency contraception, but not abortion. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is always made on a case-by-case basis. In practice, when the life of the mother is at risk, sometimes they use the loophole of “self-defense,” that is, the mother is only terminating the pregnancy to protect her own life.

One of the main issues is providing better care in case abortions do happen. Many critics say this will encourage people to have abortions because they think they’ll be taken care of if it goes wrong. Of course only a limited number of people who would outright say that they don’t want to help someone who is in the hospital and dying. But those people do exist. In several hospitals, women have tried to get care after attempts to induce abortions on themselves, and the doctors have either just let them die or debated whether to take care of the woman while she is bleeding to death. Worse, there are some who will say to a dying woman, “This is all your fault. You’re a sinner. You’re going to hell.”

Except from the RH Bill:

The enactment of the RH bill is long overdue because although, reproductive health has long been considered a basic universal human right, this right remains elusive and illusory for millions of Filipinos, especially the poor. Consider the following:

* 2.6 million Filipino women would like to plan their families but lack information and access to do so. (Family Planning Survey 2006)

* The poorest Filipinas are still having an average of 6 children (this is almost 3 times their desired number of children). (FPS 2006)

* 44% of the pregnancies in the poorest quintile are unwanted. (FPS 2006)

*  Among the poorest women who would like to avoid pregnancy, at least 41% do not use any contraceptive method because of lack of information or access. (FPS 2006)

* 54% of married women do not want an additional child but 49% of them are not using any form of family planning method (2008 National Demographic and Health Survey).

* 22% of married Filipino women have an unmet need for family planning services (2008 NDHS), an increase by more than one-third since the 2003 NDHS.

* Only 67% of all births in the Philippines are planned. The rest are either mistimed or unwanted (NDHS 2008).

* Women want fewer children than what they actually have. The total wanted fertility in the country of 2.4 children is 27% lower than the actual total fertility rate of 3.3 children (NDHS 2008).

* 42% of women consider a two-child family as the ideal family size (2008 NDHS).

* Correct and consistent use of contraceptives will prevent one-third of all maternal deaths and family planning helps prevent 1 million infant deaths worldwide (WHO and UNFPA)

* Precise and regular use of contraceptives can decrease abortion rates by as much as 85% (Allan Guttmacher Institute).

The proposed bill is pro-poor, pro-women and pro-life. Its principal beneficiaries will be the poorest of the poor and the marginalized. Reproductive health and family planning significantly improves maternal health and lowers maternal morbidity. Having the ability to plan and space children will afford women more employment and educational opportunities and will significantly lower abortion rates. The bill will also prevent infant and child deaths. Family planning will likewise mean larger investments in children’s health and education and better health outcomes for children. With resultant lower maternal and infant deaths and capacity for more investments in health and education, RH is definitely pro-life.