Culture Wars: After a Decade of Debate, the Philippines Passes Reproductive Health Bill

Filipino legislators on Monday approved a law that will allow the government to provide basic funding for sex education and contraceptives.

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Catholic nuns join some 7,000 protesters during an anti–Reproductive Health Bill rally in Manila on Aug. 4, 2012

Change, at last. After a deeply divisive, decadelong battle, the Philippines’ legislature on Monday approved a landmark piece of legislation that will allow the government to provide basic funding for sex education and contraceptives. The Reproductive Health Bill, which is expected to be signed into law by President Benigno Aquino III on Wednesday, was introduced more than 10 years ago, but languished in the legislature because of strong opposition from the Catholic Church and its allies in government.

Only five years ago, many thought the bill would never pass, that the country was too divided, that the church was too strong. But supporters fought on and found an ally in President Aquino, who took office in 2010. “The Reproductive Health Bill will have profound implications for improving the health and lives of women throughout the country,” wrote Human Rights Watch’s Carlos Conde in a statement. “The Aquino administration should be credited for having the political will to muster support for the bill in Congress despite the threat of a political backlash.”

The Philippines, a majority Catholic nation of 96 million, has long been an outlier in terms of reproductive rights. Over the past 20 years, while most of Asia — and indeed, much of the world — embraced voluntary family planning, the country cracked down on contraception. Though poll data suggest the majority of Filipinos believe in birth control, the country’s Catholic Church contends that the use of modern methods of contraception, such as condoms and birth-control pills, is an affront to God’s will and a threat to public health. Likening condoms to abortion, they have vigorously opposed any attempt to broaden reproductive rights. In a 2008 interview, Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, a vocal anticontraception campaigner, told me that women ought to avoid sexual intercourse on all but their least fertile days. Family-planning advocates, he said, were merely “propagandists of a culture of death.”

(MORE: The Philippines’ Birth-Control Battle)

Over the years, that message moved from the pulpit to the political sphere, spawning some of the world’s most restrictive laws on birth control and abortion. In year 2000, for instance, a mayoral edict saw birth control effectively banned from Manila’s public clinics, making condoms the purview of the city’s moneyed classes. The ban coincided with a Bush-era move to cut funding to overseas organizations focused on family planning, drastically cutting the availability of affordable contraceptives. In Manila, those who could afford it bought birth control at private clinics; many poor women went without. It is not uncommon to meet women in Manila who say they hoped to have two children, but because of a lack of affordable family planning, now have 6, or 8, or 10. A 25-year-old woman named Sheryl told me in 2008 that she wanted two kids, but had five. Three survived infancy in Manila’s slums.

Indeed, the Philippines is a case study in how restricting reproductive rights hurts public health. The country’s decades-long contraception crackdown has stigmatized safer sex practices, heightening the risk of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and leading to millions of unplanned and/or unwanted pregnancies. Decades worth of research shows that nutrition, health and educational opportunities drop when a family outgrows its means. Yet the U.N. Population Fund estimates that half of the 3.4 million pregnancies in the country each year are unintended. A third of these pregnancies are aborted, often in unsafe conditions. (The Philippines has a blanket ban on abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, or to save a woman’s life. The criminalization of abortion often forces women to turn to back-alley abortionists.) A 2010 report by the Center for Reproductive Rights, based in New York City, estimated that in 2008 alone, 90,000 Filipino women sought medical treatment for complications from abortion and about a thousand died.

(MORE: When a Country Cracks Down on Contraception: Grim Lessons from the Philippines)

The Reproductive Health Bill is no panacea. It does not address the country’s abortion laws. Also, the bill alone is not enough to guarantee reproductive justice. Attitudes must change too. As long as there is stigma surrounding the use of contraception, people are at risk. The bill’s detractors, including the architect of the Manila contraceptives ban, former mayor Lito Atienza, have vowed to fight the legislation and may petition the Supreme Court to declare the bill unconstitutional. Others believe the country is ready for change. “The Catholic Church has steadfastly opposed the RH bill for 13 years,” Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago told the Associated Press. “But I humbly submit that there is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” No less than the lives of Filipinos are at stake.