PHILIPPINES: Morality and Choice – A Battle for Reproductive Freedoms
PHILIPPINES: Morality and Choice – A Battle for Reproductive Freedoms

JURIST Dateline Editor Kristine Long, Pitt Law '11, lived in the Philippines with her family for 5 years…


Filipino women currently face a reproductive health care battle for the right to obtain contraception. In 2008, a group of legislators drafted House Bill 5043, which is a two-pronged plan to broaden the reproductive rights of Filipinas. First, the bill seeks to inform women about contraception, birth spacing, and safe sexual practices. Secondly, it wants to ensure universal access to reproductive health care and information. The bill has yet to pass, but it represents a serious and significant effort to curtail the government's attempt to prevent the widespread use of artificial contraception throughout the country.

In February 2000, former mayor of Manila Jose Atienza issued Executive Order 003 (EO), which affirmatively supported natural family planning. The EO sought to establish natural family planning centers to increase support for a pro-life culture. However, in reality this promotion of responsible parenthood as an ideal has become a de facto ban on all forms of artificial contraception.

For almost a decade, most Filipina women in Manila have been unable to obtain contraception. The sweeping effects of the EO are felt by millions of women because Manila is the second most populous city in the Philippines and is bordered by several smaller cities, creating a hub of more than 14 million people. Rural areas are also affected, possibly to an even greater degree.

As a result of the EO, city health centers and hospitals no longer provide contraception in their facilities, and private and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have begun shutting down. For those able to purchase condoms or birth control pills, the transactions are done in secret. Health care workers constantly fear being harassed or threatened, and so many of them no longer even attempt to provide information about family planning or safe-sex practices.

The effects of the EO are intensified and perpetuated by the strong conservative sentiment held by most current Filipinos. Almost 81% of the country is Roman Catholic, and morality and politics tend to intertwine. President Gloria Arroyo has utilized the influence of religion to promote her conservate platform, which was also heavily funded by the Catholic Church.

For many Westerners, this state of affairs seems unbelievable. In fact, many Western organizations such as USAID and women's rights groups vehemently oppose the EO as a violation of human rights. Women's reproductive rights are still a hotly contested topic in the United States, but contraception has been legally accepted and is considered a normal part of the general culture. Following the decision of Griswold v. Connecticut 44 years ago, the use of contraceptives became a protected fundamental privacy right in the US.

However, even in the West, the concept of choice is often tied to a woman's ability to pay, and artificial contraception methods are sometimes only available to those with the necessary resources. In fact, relatively recent US legislation has impeded women's reproductive choice by barring the use of Medicaid funds to pay for reproductive health care. Likewise, economic issues certainly adversely impact lower-income Filipina women's access to birth control, even beyond the EO's influence.

Passing House Bill 5043 or other similar legislation will involve a lengthy struggle. The Catholic Church has openly opposed the bill, stating that it tends to promote abortion and pre-marital sexual relations. Women within the country are torn between their faith and their desire to avoid the negative effects brought on by lack of access to birth control. Advocacy for reproductive choice is stifled because the millions of people who adhere to their Catholic faith feel that such a bold move towards sexual freedom goes against the morality of the country. However, a recent report called "Imposing Misery" portrays the lives of such women, who face economic, health, and personal struggles because of the many children they have been forced to bear.

My mother, the oldest of seven siblings, grew up in an environment where contraception was not widely accepted or even available. Living in a rural suburb of Manila, few knew anything about family planning, and having many children was the norm. It was only by going to college and eventually moving to the US that my mother was able to learn that women had other options.

It is overly simplistic to paint Filipino ways as oppressive, because there is also a strong Western sentiment in the country, enhanced by pop culture. There have long been strong cultural ties between the US and the Philippines, and the Philippines were a US commonwealth until 1946. Growing up half-American and half-Filipina, I experienced how closely the two cultures prize the same ideals. Nonetheless, the Philippines also have a strong Spanish and Catholic cultural heritage left over from colonial times. The Philippines is therefore a country that is progressive in many ways, but there are still millions of people who champion traditional Church values. Such an affinity for religion promotes the country's ideals of family, morality, and conservatism. However, the same moral concerns keep citizens from fully embracing a more progressive view towards women's sexuality.

At this time, House Bill 5043 is still being debated in the House of Representatives, but the mere fact that it exists shows how far legislators have come in garnering support for reproductive rights. In order for the bill to be successful, legislators must balance conservative moral ideology while still promoting progressive freedoms. Such a task is daunting. Yet, it is imperative for Filipinas to understand that they are not forsaking their faith by seeking birth control. Filipinas' pursuit for reproductive equality is similar to the struggle of many other women, and in order for reproductive freedom to become a worldwide reality, the ideology that frames progressive women as going against morality and familial duty must change.

Photo Credits: Thomas Carpenter, Pitt Law '11

Sources:

"Imposing Misery: The Impact of Manila's Contraception Ban on Women and Families," The Center for Reproductive Rights, June 1, 2009. Retrieved from: http://reproductiverights.org/en/document/imposing-misery-the-impact-of-manilas-contraception-ban-on-women-and-families

House Bill No. 5043 (Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008). Retrieved from: http://jlp-law.com/blog/full-text-of-house-bill-no-5043-reproductive-health-and-population-development-act-of-2008/

"Philippines Family Planning Bill Challenges Catholic Influence on Reproductive Health," Medical News Today, Mar 12, 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/141973.php

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