FIREBRAND President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s recent ferocious attacks against the Catholic Church, which he accused of being hypocritical and out of tune with the Filipino people, will benefit women and the country. He has not shied away from showing his contempt for rotten priests: “P****g ina kayo! Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? Who do you think you are?” He has threatened to expose bishops guilty of corruption, womanizing, and sexual abuse. No other President has been quite so vocal in castigating the Church hierarchy. Or quite so categorical about population control. “I am a Christian but I am a realist,” says Duterte, who rode to victory on a great wave of populist rage. “We have to do something about overpopulation.” The fact that he won’t toady to the Church, unlike his presidential predecessors, is a significant point in his favor.
But it’s too early to consider him a champion of women’s reproductive health-care rights. If his pronouncements are to have any value, they need to be backed up by resolute political will and concrete action. But his rhetoric, no matter how coated in cuss words, gives ground for optimism.
A lapsed Catholic by his own admission, Duterte is, if anything, being consistent. As mayor of Davao, he allocated funding for family planning programs, he ensured accessibility of modern contraceptives, promoted vasectomy and ligation options, and encouraged a three-child policy. Despite the misogynistic remarks he made during the campaign, he is known for his commitment to a number of Davao’s gender programs. He takes a lenient and progressive attitude to prostitution, and he is a supporter of LGBT rights. Women’s rights advocates, notably Sen. Pia Cayetano, vouch for him.
The last President to be this forceful in pushing birth control was Fidel V. Ramos. A Protestant, Ramos promoted contraceptive use, pumped money into population management initiatives and, through his indefatigable secretary of health, Juan Flavier, strengthened and enhanced family welfare services.
Ironically, the nation’s second woman president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, did far less. Keen to retain political power at any cost, Arroyo sought to keep the Church on her side and effectively struck a deal with the devil. The HB 3773 was a bill that aimed to institute a comprehensive national policy on responsible parenthood and population management. It was a forerunner of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act that was eventually passed in 2012, and commonly referred to as the RH Law. It was scuppered by her inaction. Knowing that the Church opposed HB 3773, Arroyo did not lend the bill her support. Behind her public fence sitting, she indicated to Church officials that she would not push for it under any circumstances. Sinking the bill was but one of her many ingratiating gestures toward the Church: she acquiesced to every material demand made by importuning bishops, allegedly yielding to requests for luxury cars and under the table cash donations, and unnecessarily attended clerical occasions ad nauseam.
President Benigno Aquino III was famously indecisive and contradictory in the battle to pass the RH Law. Although he approved of population control and tacitly upheld responsible parenthood, he initially resisted the promotion of artificial contraception and flip-flopped during the heated and protracted RH debates. Not until 2011 did he decide to throw his full support behind the bill, which was approved, after decades of struggle, and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014.
Roughly 70 percent of Filipinos now think that the use of artificial contraception, including pills, IUDs, and condoms, is acceptable. Yet, despite this majority view, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and a number of prominent politicians have done their level best to thwart the full implementation of the Reproductive Health Law. In brazen distortions of the science, contraceptives were likened to abortifacients. Contraception itself was deemed to be ‘corrupt.’ Too many measures that gave the RH Law its teeth have been pulled out, including a provision for emergency contraception (the morning after pill). There continues to be a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the dispensing of contraceptive implants that would stop a woman from getting pregnant for three years. The TRO is also preventing the Food and Drug Administration from issuing licenses for the distribution and marketing of contraceptives, as well as for the renewal of licenses for contraceptives already on the market. Earlier this year, underhand machinations by a few anti-RH senators slashed the RH budget.
This continued hostility has seriously hampered gains and undermined women’s reproductive health rights. Every year there are 800,000 unintended pregnancies. Every year 475,000 illegal abortions occur and put women’s lives at risk. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) reported 289,000 women died in 2013 as a result of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. The Philippines failed to reduce maternal mortality to less than three deaths per day by 2015, in accordance with its Millennium Development Goal. These are needless deaths that could have been prevented by increasing the availability of family planning services to households.
Duterte’s defiance of Catholic opposition to artificial birth control can do much to redress the plight of families and empower poor women. Twenty-five percent of the country’s population lives in grinding poverty. A president who stands up to the Church to enable women to make sound reproductive choices for themselves and their families has the potential of radically moving the country toward a more inclusive prosperous future.