by Karl Allan Barlaan and Christian Cardiente
Seemingly stuck in time, the Philippines—South East Asia’s oldest democracy and Asia’s only predominantly Catholic nation—now belatedly approaches the fork where religious dogma and state priorities diverge. On the one hand is newly-elected President, Benigno Aquino III, about to take the route his mother had never dared tread; on the other is the Catholic Church, praying he does not stray from that path which Cory Aquino had religiously taken.
The issue-in-debate is reproductive health (RH) and the schism was the result of statements issued by Aquino during his visit to the United States: “The government is obligated to inform everybody of the responsibilities of their choices. At the end of the day, government might provide assistance to those who are without means if they want to employ a particular method.”
The President’s statements came after the Sept. 23 compact signing between the Philippines and US-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The agreement releases US$434 million agreement in aid, to fund Aquino’s anti-corruption programs, enumerated in the compact as follows:
1. The Revenue Administration Reform Project or RARP (US$54.3 million)
2. The Kapit-Bisig Laban sa Kahirapan (“Linking Arms Against Poverty”)-Comprehensive and Integrated Delivery of Social Services or Kalahi-CIDSS (US$120 million)
3. The Secondary National Roads Project (222 kilometer road segment in Samar/Eastern Samar; US$214.4 million)
But the five-year timetable for the compact also coincides with the 2015 target date for the achievement of eight anti-poverty goals under the United Nations (UN) Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), for which the Philippines is one of 189 country-signatories.
The UN MDGs are as follows:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality rate
5. Improve maternal health and reduce maternal mortality
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop a global partnership for development
In 2008, MDG No. 5 on the improvement of maternal health and reduction of maternal mortality was amended to include the achievement of “universal access to reproductive health” by 2015—a provision clearly unacceptable to the Church even then.
Bishops’ gambit declined
Now however, with a formal compact in effect and funds changing hands, coupled with Aquino’s repeated pronouncements on “responsible parenthood” (possibly a euphemism for a reproductive health), the Church knows that the passage of an RH bill into law has become more real than imagined—and its response was proportionate to the unwelcome realization.
“It’s just a small amount compared to the moral values that we are going to lose. Apparently for that measly sum of money in the name of fighting poverty, here we are again, selling out the Filipino soul,” said Fr. Melvin Castro, executive director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.
“He (Aquino) wants to make enemies and take them on all at the same time. But he won’t solve anything if he is dipping his fingers into so many issues right now...we’re hoping and praying that he will be like his mother,” added Castro.
“Those who do not want to listen, to follow, to abide by the Church stand, then, they are on their own,” said retired Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz.
Both CBCP public affairs head Deogracias Iñiguez Jr. and Msgr. Juanito Figura, secretary general of the CBCP threatened civil disobedience, as one of the “moral options” available to the Church should the RH bill be passed into law.
Vox populi, vox Dei?
But the Church does not have a monopoly of these moral options.
In defense of the President, Palace spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said, “There are certain moral dimensions to the reproductive health bill. We have to acknowledge the presence of other faiths. He has to be above faith. He has to be favorable to all faiths.”
As early as 2008, the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) has announced its stand on the issue of family planning. “The Iglesia ni Cristo accepts modern family planning methods or the use of what others call ‘contraceptives’ as long as they are not abortifacient in nature and they do not impose prolonged abstinence from sexual intercourse among married couples,” INC spokesperson Bienvenido Santiago said.
Eddie Villanueva of the born-again Jesus Is Lord (JIL) movement, in his 2010 presidential bid, said he was in favor of “sound family planning program and responsible parenthood but against all forms of abortion,” and provided that “artificial contraception must not be harmful to mothers.”
In May 2010, The United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), one of the biggest Protestant churches in the country, expressed support for the enactment of an RH law.
“We have long been in favor of responsible parenthood and responsible family planning. We are not necessarily curtailing the private judgments of couples,” said UCCP secretary general Bishop Eliezer Pascua.
And while the Muslim group Imam Council of the Philippines (ICP) has joined the Catholic Church in opposing the use of contraceptives and condoms even among married couples, there does not seem to be a blanket prohibition among Muslims from endorsing the more-encompassing RH bill.
Yasmin Busran-Lao, founder of the Al-Mujadillah Development Foundation (AMDF) and an advocate of gender justice for Muslim women, has joined fellow Liberal Party (LP) 2010 senatorial candidates Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel and Sonia Roco in forming the Pambansang Koalisyon ng mga Kababaihan sa Kanayunan (PKKK). The group is lobbying for the passage of an RH law as a means to educate women on their reproductive rights.
Even then, neither faith nor religion seems to be a factor that significantly affects Filipinos’ views on reproductive health. According to a 2008 SWS survey, 68 percent of Filipinos believe that there must be a law requiring government to distribute legal contraceptives to those opting for its use. 81 percent of those interviewed were Catholics, ironically with more Catholics (71 percent) in favor of the passage of the RH bill versus non-Catholics (68 percent).
A 2010 Pulse Asia survey on family planning bares the same statistics, with 87 percent of the respondents saying that it is important for government to allocate budget for family planning. The survey also shows that a majority of Filipinos do not believe that Catholic Church’s contention that it is a sin to use modern methods of family planning: 51 percent of those surveyes disagree with the Church, 29 percent agree, and 20 percent are undecided.
A question of economics
If faith is not central to the debate on reproductive health, what should be? Experts say “economics” and “human rights.”
Even Fr. Melvin Castro agrees, at least to the first. “Because the problem is economic in nature, the solution should also be economic in nature,” said Castro.
In 2008, 28 of the country’s leading economists from the UP School of Economics discussed the intricacies of the RH Bill vis a vis population and poverty. The result was a position paper entitled Population, Poverty, Politics and the Reproductive Health Bill by Ernesto M. Pernia, Stella Alabastro-Quimbo, Maria Joy V. Abrenica, Ruperto P. Alonzo, Agustin L. Arcenas, Arsenio M. Balisacan, Dante B. Canlas, Joseph J. Capuno, Ramon L. Clarete, Rolando A. Danao, Emmanuel S. de Dios, Aleli dela Paz-Kraft, Benjamin E. Diokno, Emmanuel F. Esguerra, Raul V. Fabella, Maria Socorro Gochoco-Bautista, Teresa J. Ho, Dennis Claire S. Mapa, Felipe M. Medalla, Maria Nimfa F. Mendoza, Solita C. Monsod, Toby Melissa C. Monsod, Fidelina Natividad-Carlos, Cayetano W. Paderanga, Gerardo P. Sicat, Orville C. Solon, Edita A. Tan, and Gwendolyn R. Tecson.
In their position paper, the group expressed strong and unequivocal support to the reproductive health bill’s main thrust—“to enable couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information and means to carry out their decisions.”
The group cited, among others, the following as bases of their position: (1) a population policy cum government-funded family planning program has been a critical complement to sound economic policy and poverty reduction in Asia; (2) poverty incidence rises steadily with the number of children; (3) the poor prefer smaller families but are unable to achieve their preference due to lack of information and access to family planning services; and (4) lack of access to contraception has important health implications such as increased illness and mortality for both mothers and their children, and unwanted pregnancies result in induced and illegal abortion.
“The current debate on the population issue has become unnecessarily muddled by conceptual and factual distortions. Some groups, including the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and other ‘pro-life’ groups, vehemently oppose the RH Bill because they claim that it is pro-abortion and is anti-life. A studious reading of the bill, however, shows that these are clearly erroneous claims. In the first place, there is an obvious definitional and scientific difference between contraception, which occurs before conception, and abortion, which occurs after,” the group said.
House Minority leader Edcel Lagman agrees. According to him, “reproductive health and family planning are interlinked with all of the eight MDGs from the eradication of extreme hunger and poverty, combating HIV-AIDS and reducing child mortality to achieving universal primary education and ensuring environmental sustainability.”
“A high population growth rate of 2.04 percent impacts adversely on all indicators of human development like health, education, food security, employment, mass housing and the environment... The connection between population and development is well-documented and empirically established,” said Lagman, author to one of the six RH bills filed before the House of Representatives.
UN Human Development Reports confirm that countries with higher population growth have inversely lower capacities for human development. The Asian Development Bank in 2004 also listed a large population as a major cause of poverty.
For female legislators and RH bill authors both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, RH is an issue rooted in the State’s duty to protect human rights and promote human dignity.
“The right to health is understood not just as a right to be healthy, but as a right to control one’s own health and body, including sexual and reproductive freedom... Within the context of the Constitutional provisions on women’s right to health and the State’s international commitments as embodied in various human rights instruments, the State is bound to address reproductive health issues,” said Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, author of an RH bill filed in the Senate.
“Advancing reproductive health rights in a comprehensive, available, accessible, acceptable, and democratic manner is a long-overdue mandate of the Philippine government to its female population,” said Gabriela partylist.
According to the National Statistics Office, for every 100,000 live births in the Philippines, 162 women die during pregnancy, while giving birth, or shortly after giving birth.
The Catholic Church will stand by its doctrines—that no longer surprises. It will uphold tradition like conservative hierarchies do, and should not be faulted for doing so.
The debate however, on reproductive health is one that should be argued more on reason and less about faith. Such is how boundaries—political, denominational, and sectoral—are transcended.
The House leadership and minority have already “broken tradition” in agreeing on an otherwise contentious piece of legislation—minority leader Edcel Lagman has consistently advocated for an RH law while Speaker Belmonte had implemented an RH ordinance as former Mayor of Quezon City.
The Speaker recently declared that it is the House majority’s decision to debate the bill during plenary. And before that, should a consolidated version be drafted, the issuance of endorsement for the President to certify the bill as urgent. “I think we can (and) it is okay to ask the President to request him if he can certify that (RH bill as urgent),” said Belmonte.
Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., co-author of the RH bill when he was congressman, had lauded Aquino for keeping firm on reproductive health despite opposition from the Catholic Church.
The young Marcos, too, had broken traditional political lines in expressing support for the young Aquino.
It is now the President’s turn to break traditions and set himself apart from his mother, former President Cory Aquino, a devout Catholic. He has to certify the reproductive health bill as urgent, and see its passage through.
Then he becomes his own man. But more importantly, he defines national policy beyond his six-year term.
Noynoy Aquino, the country’s first bachelor President, will then have ensured that the protection of women’s rights no longer become beholden to the religious affiliation of his successors.
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