Reproductive rights and the political will of Philippine presidents

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RACHEL A.G. REYES

CALLED by Human Rights Watch as the one “bright spot in the administration’s otherwise horrendous human rights record,” President Rodrigo Duterte, since taking office in June last year, has voiced his support for the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law, known as the RH law. In his first state of the nation address, Duterte vowed to put the RH law into “full force.” In January, he signed an executive order to hasten its implementation. Just a week ago, the Food and Drug Administration announced that its evaluation of 51 contraceptives was almost complete, which gives some hope to the eventual lifting of the Supreme Court’s 40-month-old temporary restraining order placed on contraceptive implants.

The question is: Do these recent moves mean that real political will is now being shown in favor of women’s reproductive rights?

Government intrusion into how women control their fertility is not new in Southeast Asia. In the late colonial period, Southeast Asian states responded to high birth rates through government campaigns designed to control and direct family size. Vietnam’s ‘stop at two’ policy was particularly harsh on a woman whose status within her husband’s family depended on male heirs; in Indonesia, school textbooks taught young children that parental love and care, when shared only between two children, would be generous, but would be diluted if there were many. Programs often specifically targeted women. The provision of pre- and ante-natal care for women was combined with contraception services in Indonesia; Singapore attempted to manipulate birth rates by class as well as gender. Special privileges and allowances were given to women with a college education who gave birth to a third child, but were withdrawn from women without high-school diplomas and had two children.

Today, in Thailand, illegal abortions are widespread due in part to extremely restrictive abortion laws that are heavily influenced by Buddhist precepts and deeply entrenched cultural attitudes toward motherhood. In Indonesia, illegal traditional abortion practices flourish as legislation on induced abortions continues to be bedeviled by ambiguity and contradiction. Meanwhile, the effort to promote sex education to teenagers by the Indonesian government is today facing stiff opposition from Muslim clerics.


The Philippine RH law is a landmark piece of legislation. It aims to provide universal access to maternal care, contraception, fertility control and family planning services, and compulsory sex education for children from the age of nine. Signed into law by President Benigno Aquino 3rd in December 2012, its passage took over a decade, stalled by fierce opposition from a powerful Catholic Church and like-minded, maybe even opportunistic, politicians who were only too willing to condemn the measures as immoral.

As the bill was debated, the Catholic Church ramped up its campaign of protest, organizing mass prayer rallies, denouncing the bill’s provisions in the media, by turns, as “corruption,” as sounding the death knell for the Filipino soul, and as deferential to Western imperialism. Newspaper reporting portrayed stark clashes and extreme polarities between religious ideology and scientific mentalities, economic progress and traditional values, the godly and the godless, life and death. The difficult journey of the RH Law is exceptional because its main thrust is family planning and the accessibility of contraception. It is a long, long way off from the legalization of abortion, which no Philippine president has yet championed.

In 1967, President Ferdinand Marcos’ government signed the United Nations Declaration on Population and, two years later, established the Commission on Population. Marcos sought to institute a national policy for family planning under which information, advice, and contraceptives would be provided courtesy of US aid. At the time, the average completed size of the Filipino family was 6.8 children and the country’s population stood at 37.8 million.

After two decades of rule, Marcos was deposed by the Church-backed, so-called “people’s power” revolution that swept Corazon Aquino to power. A grateful Aquino did little to check the Church’s power and its rigidly pro-life stance. Indeed, the 1987 Constitution forged by the Aquino administration fatefully enshrined it. Article II, Section 12 reads: “[The State] shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception.” Family planning and reproductive rights did not see a return to the political agenda until Aquino’s successor.

Days after his inauguration, in 1992, Fidel V. Ramos (FVR), the only Protestant president the country has known, took on the Catholic Church. FVR figured that the population growth rate needed to fall below 2 percent and, making “freedom of choice” the foundation of the government’s family planning program, aimed to limit family size through the provision of artificial birth control methods. FVR’s government defended women’s right to information about contraception. By 1993, his administration was pushing for the use of prophylactics to curb the spread of HIV. The Church, however, declared “total war” on FVR’s government and the efforts were short-lived.

The presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo showed remarkable pliancy toward the Catholic Church. It was rumored that she had ordered cabinet members not to mention family planning in front of her, while publicly advocating only natural family planning methods that were deemed acceptable by the Church. In 2005, speaking before the UN General Assembly and world leaders, she exhorted the UN to “respect the deep Catholicism of the vast majority of Filipino people,” adding that she would redirect UN funds away from reproductive health and toward training married couples in natural family planning. Ironically, under two female presidents, writes Jaileen F. Jimeno of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, the country’s population policies went “haywire”

The Philippines currently has a population of 105 million people and is the thirteenth most populous nation on earth. Its fertility rate, at 3.15, is the highest in Southeast Asia. Its population growth rate is almost 2 percent, also the highest in Southeast Asia.

Just after his recent trip to Manila in 2015, where a record-breaking six million people turned out to see him, Pope Francis, perhaps overwhelmed by the throngs, could only quip that Filipino Catholics were under no obligation to “breed like rabbits.”

Reproductive health laws in all the world’s Catholic countries have directly empowered indigent women and bestowed upon them the freedom of informed choice. In a country that boasts high literacy rates and widespread tertiary education among women, poor Filipino women give birth on average to 5.2 children compared to her wealthy compatriot with 1.9 children. Poor women have restrictive access to modern and safe contraceptives, family planning methods, and ante-natal care from a skilled provider, and are more likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy. Poor women still rely on traditional healers – the albularyo and manghihilot whose dangerous methods and administration of medicines for inducing abortion result in infection, hemorrhage, and other complications that threaten the life of the mother. Poor women are more likely to die at childbirth.

It is anyone’s guess whether Duterte really has a grasp of what’s at stake, or whether his administration is really prepared to fight for women’s reproductive rights. If one were to think cynically, one might well think that these recent moves might just be part of the administration’s ongoing attempts to plaster over its sagging credibility.

rachelagreyes@gmail.com

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