With approximately 97 million people crammed into a territory slightly bigger than Nevada, where 90,000 women are damaged from roughly 600,000 “back-alley” abortions yearly, a comprehensive reproductive and maternal health care and service law for the Philippines seems no more than common sense.
But this is a predominantly Catholic country, the last in the world (besides Vatican City) without even a divorce law, where the Church held absolute power during the 500 years of Spanish colonization and where Church existence began with the extermination of indigenous priestesses and absolute disenfranchisement of women.
Anything that hints at returning even a minuscule of rights to women is cause for strident debate. Hence, the Reproductive Health bill (RH bill) in the Philippine House of Representatives and the Reproductive Health Act in the Senate has evoked an unprecedented hysteria from the Church and its adherents, wholly disproportionate to the provisions of the proposed law.
In summary, the RH bill calls for sex education in public schools after Grade 5, public access to family planning information, and government subsidies for contraception for low-income families–by current global standards, relatively tame. But the Church has unleashed excommunication threats, Sunday bashings from the pulpit, pastoral letters and prayer rallies against its proponents. Abortion opponents characterize the bill as a path to licentiousness and legalized abortion, totally ignoring the country’s full-blown sex trade and high abortion rate.
Supporters of the bill, majority of them secular women’s organizations, banded together into the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network (RHAN, left) and forthwith marched on February 16 to the offices of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines to denounce Church interference in government matters.
The loud and furious debate has engaged all kinds of people. When officials of wealthy Barangay Ayala Alabang passed an ordinance requiring prescriptions for contraceptives, including condoms, Broadway star Lea Salonga demanded:
What right, constitutional or otherwise, does another human being, plus an entire barangay [village], have to what I practice in the privacy of my bedroom? No one has a say in how my husband and I express ourselves sexually, or what contraceptive measures we decide to employ, or not to employ.
Ironically, the women of Barangay Ayala Alabang belong to the wealthy and educated class with a 2.0 children Total Fertility Rate–meaning they most likely practice family planning–in contrast to the 5.9 rate for poor women. The RH bill is not only a gender issue; it is a class issue.
The statistics are dismal for the country: It is the 12th most populous country in the world, with a high rate of teen pregnancy, a high maternal death rate, and with reported HIV/AIDS incidence jumping in the last five years. On the positive side, a national polling body reports that 71 percent of the national population and 86 percent of the Metro-Manila population are in favor of the bill.
RHAN has waged massive demonstrations to pressure the legislature to pass the bill. If that happens, the centennial of International Women’s Day will make Philippine history books as the day control over Philippine women’s bodies transferred from a male God to the women themselves.