The Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Situation Report is a monthly column I write for the feminist blog Gender Across Borders. This month’s SRHR Sit Report focuses on the Philippines, where the Catholic hierarchy holds tremendous power over legislators to the detriment of women’s reproductive health.
The Philippines is an island state, and the most populated Southeast Asian nation. Abortion there is banned, and the Catholic hierarchy exerts tremendous power over the political process in spite of the Philippines’ constitutional separation of church and state. President Gloria Arroyo is supported by the church and openly backs its anti-contraception stance.
Millions of women in the Philippines have more children than they want because of a public policy regime that either fails to fund family planning services or bans them completely under pressure from the politically powerful Catholic church hierarchy. Contraception is not funded by the Department of Health, and has been effectively banned in the capital city of Manila since 2000.
In January, the Supreme Court refused to hear an attempt to overturn the ban– on a technicality. That case was filed by twenty poor, slum-dwelling women demanding their right to access to contraception. Poverty is a huge problem in the Philippines, as population grows and rice prices rise. The country produces 16 million tons of rice annually, but imports 2 million tons more to meet national need. And the population growth trajectory continues to trouble experts.
In the capital city where 70% of women live below the poverty line, poor and marginalized women are disproportionately affected by the contraception ban. Women with means still have access to contraception through private clinics and healthcare providers.
Until recently, condoms were distributed free in other parts of the Philippines with USAID funding, but even that was cut off last year. Many women are now unable to obtain any kind of contraception, and the consequences can be deadly. As in any country with restrictive reproductive health policies, clandestine abortion is a major public health problem. Maternal mortality is “a key challenge” in the Philippines, according to the UNFPA. It’s far too high; almost double that of neighbor Thailand. According to UN data, the vast majority of these deaths are are preventable. Maternal mortality, subject of the fifth Millennium Development Goal, clearly ties the need for comprehensive reproductive health care to the development agenda.
Often, unintended pregnancies drive families deeper into poverty– and according to a Guttmacher Institute report, more than half of pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended. Curbing unwanted pregnancies could have tremendous impact on poverty and on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The public stance of the Catholic church, however, is that poverty is the result of corruption and economic policy. The stance blatantly flouts the international development community and the international laws that call for comprehensive reproductive health services to protect women’s reproductive health and human rights. This fact sheet illustrates the unequivocal link between forced maternity and poverty.
In spite of all this, the City of Manila has “engaged in a campaign against modern contraception.” The city, in line with church demands, encourages the use of ‘natural family planning;’ in other words, the rhythm method. We’ve all heard the old joke: What do you call people who use the rhythm method? Parents. I actually think it’s offensive to rhetorically equate ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ family planning given the irrefutable scientific evidence for the level of effectiveness of contraceptive methods and the frequent failure of ‘natural family planning.’
Given overwhelming public support for contraception, many activists have high hopes for the 2010 elections. And there is currently a Reproductive Health Bill before the Philippine congress. Catholic officials have gone on the offensive, adopting strong language equating politicians who support reproductive health with abortionists and threatening excommunication. Even as maternal mortality rises, anti groups have labeled the legislation immoral and “pro-abortion.”
The government’s refusal to fund contraception and the outright ban on all forms of contraception in the city of Manila means that thousands of Philippine women’s constitutional and human rights are being violated on an ongoing basis. The church’s heavy-handed activism has held back the Philippines on important development indicators, and doubtless caused the deaths of many women. You can help fight for the reproductive autonomy of the women of the Philippines by joining the Center for Reproductive Rights’ facebook cause to End the Birth Control Ban in the Philippines, and donate to support CRR’s powerful and effective advocacy work there.
For more on the ongoing crisis in the Philippines, also see J.Mack‘s great piece for Gender Across Borders in May called Ignoring the Truth in the Philippines, pointing to an RH Reality Check post and referencing several important reports.
Brook Elliott-Buettner is a freelance human rights policy researcher and writer living in New York. More information and work is available at www.brookelliottbuettner.com.