Philippines: Likely Progress On Reproductive Health And Rights?
FRIDAY FILE: A pending law in the Philippines may make women and girls’ reproductive rights and health more secure. AWID spoke to Junice Demetrio-Melgar of Likhaan Center for Women’s Health about the pending Reproductive Health Bill, 2001.
AWID: What is the situation of women and girls’ reproductive health and rights in the Philippines?
Junice Demetrio-Melgar: It is dire. Maternal mortality is high: 162 deaths/100,000 live births in 2006 [i] or an estimated total of about 4,600 deaths in 2008[ii]. Maternal deaths are declining very slowly; and serious maternal complications (at least 15% of all pregnancies) are higher than other causes of women's morbidity in 2005.[iii] This means pregnant women - especially the poor and young - are unable to access the necessary, life-saving maternal care services.
Fifty four percent (or about 1.9 million in 2008) of pregnancies were unintended[iv] and abortion is pervasive despite it being prohibited by law without any explicit exception. In 2008, 560,000 induced abortions were estimated to have taken place; 90,000 women were hospitalized, and 1,000 died as a result of these abortions.
Abortion has been criminalized in the Philippines since the 1930s when the abortion law was copied from the Spanish Penal Code. However, contraception was part of the government's family planning program since the early 1970s. After the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, the government, through the Department of Health, introduced an integrated health and human rights approach in its Reproductive Health Program. This program integrated ten services including maternal care, family planning, STI-HIV prevention and services, sexuality education, adolescent reproductive health services, prevention and care of victims of violence against women, prevention and management of abortion complications (PMAC) and men's involvement in reproductive health.[v] In 2000, the Secretary of Health allowed the registration of the emergency pill for use in crisis centers for women and started the post-abortion PMAC program in Department of Health hospitals.
New challenges are the upsurge in HIV and AIDS and persistent adolescent pregnancy, the only age-specific fertility rate that is not declining.[vi]
The trend towards liberalization of reproductive health and rights halted with the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010) who erased "reproductive health" from government policies and departments such as the economic development policy, national women's commission, and the Department of Health. Under her administration, the Department promoted only "natural family planning" (i.e. the non-use of contraceptives) and refused to spend Congressional allocations for family planning programs. It encouraged local government units to ban contraceptives in their jurisdiction. The hostile government attitude towards contraceptives continued until the President ended her term in 2010.
AWID: The government has introduced the Reproductive Health Bill, 2011 into Congress, at what stage is the Bill?
JDM: The Reproductive Health Bill was initially introduced early in 2001. The inspiration was the ICPD+5 forum and the Department of Health administrative orders. The law was deemed important to institutionalize reproductive health, particularly to override the decentralized Philippine
health system and to assign a regular budget allocation. Up to this time, most budgets, especially for family planning, came from donor grants.
The Bill failed to pass in the past three congresses that coincided with the tenure of President Arroyo. It is now the beginning of the 11th year of the Bill and the 4th Congress. The Bill is in the phase of plenary interpellation in both Houses. In the lower House, almost all the questions are repetitions since plenary interpellations began in the previous (14th) Congress. In the Senate the interpellation currently questions the necessity of the Bill, the necessity for and coverage of funding.
AWID: How were women’s rights organizations involved in drafting the Bill?
JDM: Women's organizations, like Likhaan, were part of the process from the very beginning. We helped to strengthen the language on rights, post-abortion care, and sexuality education. We were also involved from the beginning in parrying attacks from Catholic conservatives.
AWID: What key issues does the Bill address?
JDM: The current version of the Bill focuses on reducing maternal mortality through increased access to essential and emergency maternal care, contraceptives and post-abortion care, mandatory sexuality education for adolescents, and increasing health system support by ensuring adequate midwifery personnel, adequate birthing centers and hospitals, and government funding for the poor.
AWID: What advocacy work are women’s rights organizations and networks doing to promote the passing of the Bill?
JDM: We are key to the multi-sectoral movement for the passage of the Bill. We educate the public. We broaden grassroots and multi-sectoral support including among academics, lawyers and health professionals. We organize demonstrations to express support, protest anti-reproductive health measures register the broad constituency of the Bill. Some women's organizations are part of the technical panel that helps authors with their research information and answering questions during plenary interpellation.
AWID: The Catholic Church has voiced strong opposition to the Bill. Why? And what is the position of women’s rights advocates?
JDM: We distinguish between Church leaders and the Church congregation. Most of the over 80% Filipinos who support reproductive health programs are Catholic. [vii]
The basis of the objection of Church leaders and conservative Catholic groups is the Pope's teachings in Casti Connubi[viii] which instructs that all sexual relations be "open to the possibility of life" and allows only "natural" family planning methods. Religious conservatives consider every pregnancy a gift of God and reject the concept of "unintended" or "unwanted" pregnancy. They consider contraceptives as abortifacients - despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary - and want the unborn protected at all times, without consideration for the mother's equal right to protection. The craziest among them accuse the Reproductive Health Bill of wanting to effect genocide and promiscuity and bestiality!
We actively and constructively engage the Catholic congregation. We try to convince the public and legislators about the unreasonableness of the official Catholic position and the harm that it causes to women's lives.
AWID: Please tell us about the "Occupy Congress" campaign organizing women’s organizations to lobby for the Bill.
JDM: "Occupy Congress” was a continuation of the movement for the passage of the Bill but recognizing the deadline for the passage of the Bill until about mid 2012. After this, we expect reparations for the 2013 local elections to occupy most of the legislators' minds. "Occupy" was a more intensified campaign urging for the passage, if not a deadline for voting, by December 2011.
The activities comprised of camping out near the House of Representatives, having daily pickets during session days, conducting noise barrage, and community leaders' disrupting a session towards the end of the Occupation. We marched to the Presidential palace and were to have a dialogue with him, except it was canceled at the last minute because of a political emergency.
The "Occupation" lasted for a month and a half, (from November 7 – December 14) and involved different kinds of mobilizations. There were over 50 organizations involved, about half of which were women's organizations. The campaign resulted in the President publicly asking the Speaker why the Bill had not yet been passed.
AWID: What is the likelihood that the Bill will be passed?
JDM: Despite several obstacles this is the farthest that the Bill has come. The President is steadfast in his support and has offered amendments. The Speaker of the House is supportive too. The biggest stumbling block right now is the President’s impeachment trial, which has stalled interpellation in both Houses of Congress. If there is no voting on the Bill in either House by end of June, the prospects are dim.
AWID: If the Bill is passed, much work will need to be done to deliver practical benefits to women. What are the priorities?
JDM: We expect the battles to continue in making the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR). In making the IRR for the Magna Carta of Women last year, defining the content of women's health services was a protracted battle with anti reproductive health forces. We anticipate that they would pursue their opposition up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court Chief Justice now on trial and who is very close to President Arroyo said in a media interview last year that he expected to be the "final arbiter" on the Reproductive Health Bill.
The passage of the Bill will be a respite in the continuing fight for even the most limited reproductive health and rights of women in the Philippines.
[i] National Statistics Office 2006.
[ii] Guttmacher, 2009.
[iii] Likhaan, 2005
[iv] Guttmacher, 2009
[v] Department of Health Administrative orders on Reproductive health in 1998 and 2000.
[vi] National Demographic and Health Survey 2008
[vii] According to polls by the Social Weather Station and Pulse Asia.
[viii] Pope Pius IX, and Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI)