IN 2015, after vigorous lobbying from the Alliance for the Family Foundation, who were no doubt aided and abetted by powerful sympathizers in government and the Catholic Church, the Supreme Court imposed suspensions on 77 contraceptive products. Particularly targeted were hormonal contraceptive implants known as Implanon and Implanon NXT that safeguard women from pregnancy for up to 3 years. The temporary restraining order, or TRO, more perniciously, strangles the supply of all contraceptive drugs and devices by preventing the Food and Drug Administration from granting “any and all pending applications for registration and/or re-certification” of family planning products, with the exception of condoms.
This means, as Klaus Beck, the Philippines country representative of the UN Population Fund grimly explains, “none will be allowed to provide any family planning methods… whether it’s the government, the private sector, or UN agency it doesn’t matter, because it’s the product registration that would not be in place.”
By the end of this year, 62 percent of family planning products will no longer be available due to expired certificates of registration. By the end of next year, 90 percent of contraceptive brands will have been phased out. In 2020 there will be zero supplies in the Philippines. The Supreme Court’s continuing resistance to lift the TRO effectively imperils the lives of all women and propels the country toward a nightmarish future.
The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, popularly known as the RH Law, which protects and guarantees the right of all Filipinos to reproductive health and family planning services, was signed into force in 2012. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the RH Law in 2014 but not before striking out a number of sections to do with implementation. In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued its TRO ruling on contraceptive products. Before the year was over, ruthless senatorial schemers managed to hack offP1 billion from a budget of P3.27 billion for family planning that had been allocated to the Department of Health. In January 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order 12 that seeks to achieve “zero unmet need for family planning,” a document that is hardly worth the paper it’s written on as long as the TRO remains in place. Why do we keep to the one step forward three steps back dance?
At the Family Planning 2020 (FP 2020) Focal Point Asia Regional Workshop held last week (May 11), feelings of exasperation and despair ran high. Suggestions to storm the Supreme Court, or file a complaint with the International Criminal Court claiming the State grossly violated women’s reproductive health rights, were bruited about. The number crunchers projected infographics showing that, in 2016, almost 6.5 million women depended on a modern method of contraception. At this rate, an estimated half a million unsafe abortions and almost 2 million unintended pregnancies would be averted. “By planning and spacing their births,” said Beth Schlachter of FP 2020, “women and their partners can responsibly care for the children they have, and ensure that they survive infancy and thrive.” It might sound like hackneyed talk but it remains nonetheless true.
In July 2012, at the first London Summit on Family Planning—“Global Leaders Unite to Provide 120 Million Women in the World’s Poorest Countries with Access to Contraceptives by 2020”—hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates stood up and challenged the Vatican. “As a Catholic I believe in this religion…But I also have to think about how we keep women alive. I believe in not letting women die.” Scientists agreed. Around the same time as the conference, the British Medical Journal The Lancet reported that better access to contraception could cut the maternal death rate in developing countries by a third.
So, what happens to a country where women’s access to modern methods of contraception has been removed?
Try to imagine, if you will, the Philippines in a not too distant future ruled by a totalitarian theocratic government. Under this regime, women are forbidden to use any form of modern contraception on pain of death. In such a society, contraceptives can only be obtained on the black market at extortionate cost. Those who are suspected of using or selling contraceptives are murdered by the police or by paid vigilantes. Most of these victims are dirt-poor small-time users and pushers of the pill. Nobody bothers to keep track of how many have been killed. The big fish who really rake in the money, the smugglers and traffickers of intrauterine devices, birth control injections and implants that prevent pregnancy for a few months or years, and fetch hundreds of thousands of pesos, are protected by corrupt police and government officials. Because of soaring population growth, the country’s economy has collapsed and the environment is destroyed. Statistics are no longer kept on teenage pregnancies and maternal deaths. Feral, starving bands of orphan children roam the streets at night. Finding discarded fetuses in garbage dumps is a normal and daily occurrence. And only extremely rich and well-connected women have access to birth control.
Riffing, somewhat tongue in cheek, on Margaret Atwood’s celebrated dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) that tells of a country where women have been thoroughly stripped of their human rights is, admittedly, a cheap trick. But unless the Supreme Court immediately lifts the TRO that it has slapped on contraceptive products, we may not be too far removed from the obscene sci-fi horror I have just invited you to imagine.