To Control Or Not to Control: Is the RH Bill Necessary?

Who will win the fiery battle on the passage of the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) bill now pending in both houses of Congress?

The “stubbornness” of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) hierarchy, said the proponents and supporters of the bill, hinders the passage of the said important piece of legislation, initiated in the House of Representatives by Albay 1st District Rep. Edcel C. Lagman with a counterpart bill in the Senate, authored by Sen. Rodolfo Biazon.

As of this writing, the RH bill in the Lower House is “unfinished business” while in the Senate, the Biazon bill is being reviewed, commented upon and is soon to be amended.

Last February 18, the Forum for Family Planning and Development (FFPD) and the Social Weather Station (SWS) publicized the results of the latest survey showing the “clamor” of the public, particularly the residents of Manila, for the bill’s passage.

However, the RCC’s Episcopal Commission on Family and Life (ECFL) belittled the results of the FFPD-commissioned survey, which involved 600 residents of Manila’s Districts 1 and 5. Based on 2007 data from the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB), Manila has a total population of 1.66 million,

Manila had been the focus of the debates on the issues surrounding RH, especially since former Mayor and now Environment Secretary Lito L. Atienza issued Executive Order No. 003 which implicitly “bans” the sale of contraceptives such as condoms, intrauterine device (IUD), and other materials, and the provision of medical services to women suspected to have undergone abortion.

The former Manila government chief has been said to be giving cash gifts to families that have more children.

Some of the NGOs (non-government organization) working in Manila even went “underground”, said the FFPD and its partner women’s NGO, Linangan ng Kababaihan (Likhaan) Center for Women.

Fe Nicodemous, an NGO worker working closely with migrants and families of migrants, said that she had been harassed by some people allegedly connected with the former mayor when she and her colleagues were giving free contraceptives in one of the slum areas of Manila years ago.

Pro-poor or anti-poor?

Using poverty and women’s health as the primary basis for promoting the RH bill, the FFPD released on Sept. 3, 2008 its official statement the issue:

“An effective population management is the road to development. This is not a myth, but a hard fact that has been the subject of numerous researches and studies which revealed that rapid population growth has an adverse impact on economic development. It is also a fact that the very core of a sound population control lies in the implementation of a sustainable family planning program capable of providing much-needed information and supplies to those who need these,” read the first line of the position paper of the FFPD published on their official website (insert URL: http://www.forum4fp.org/html/the-forum-position-paper.html).

FFPD believes that, beyond the glaring indicators related to the current state of reproductive health in the Philippines – the high maternal mortality rate, the rising number of abortion, the increasing child mortality, the growing number of people without access to basic health and social services – the only solution is the enactment and implementation of a Reproductive Health Law that “will enable each Filipino to be accorded the right to information, the right to choose how many children to have and when to have them.”

The position paper further read, “The Forum for Family Planning and Development joins hands with other NGOS in expressing our strong support for the urgent passage of the bill on Reproductive Health. The measure goes beyond its purpose of improving reproductive health and implementing a nationwide program on family planning as it creates a path towards a sound economic policy that will improve the lives of millions of Filipino households.”

The FFPD paper added that couples, but most especially the women, should be given the freedom to choose the path they will take in raising their family.

“We have been waiting for decades for our country to honor its commitments to the world – to make real its promise to uphold our people’s right to reproductive health and family planning. While we have waited and debated for decades on the matter, our women and young girls have been suffering and thousands have lost their lives – 10 women are dying every 24 hours due to pregnancy related complications, while young girls as young as 13 years old are getting pregnant. This because they lack the information and family planning supplies that would have provided them with an option,” the FFPD’s paper further read.

However, the RCC hierarchy does not believe that a big population breeds poverty.

Earlier this year, in his New Year’s message, Pope Benedict XVI said poverty is often considered a consequence of demographic change. “For this reason, there are international campaigns afoot to reduce birth rates, sometimes using methods that respect neither the dignity of the woman, nor the right of parents to choose responsibly how many children to have; graver still, these methods often fail to respect even the right to life,” the Holy Pontiff said in his message.

Furthermore, the Holy Pontiff said there are still millions of people who had escaped from poverty despite experiencing substantial demographic growth.

Based on the 1981 statistics of world poverty incidence, 40 percent of the world’s population is in penury; however, after several years, that number had been halved, the Pope pointed out. “This achievement goes to show that resources to solve the problem of poverty do exist, even in the face of an increasing population,” the Pontiff said.

Good for or detrimental to women’s health?

While proponents and supporters of the bill say that use of artificial contraceptives do not endanger women’s overall health, there are medical experts who say it does.

Dr. Angelita Miguel-Aguirre, head of the Makati Medical Society’s Committee on Ethics, said in a statement that contraceptives inhibit and interfere with normal and healthy reproductive processes, resulting in serious complications and side effects. She added that women pay a high price for “tampering with nature.”

Lagman’s bill promotes the use of birth control pills, patch or injectable hormones, intrauterine device (IUD), barrier methods (condoms/diaphragms) and sterilization (ligation for women and vasectomy for men).

Aguirre said hormonal contraceptives such as pills, injectables (DEPO-Provera), implants and patches that contain estrogens and progestins have been classified as carcinogenic, thus raising breast, cervical and liver cancer risks, as well as increasing the possibility of premature hypertension and coronary artery disease resulting to heart attacks and strokes, and thromboembolism/pulmonary embolism.

In addition to these, decreased libido, infertility, cramps, gallstone formation, nausea and bloating are said to be the other side effects of hormonal pills.

Condoms also cannot prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted infections such as the human immune-deficiency virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

The rubber comprising latex condoms has intrinsic voids about five micra whereas the HIV is only 0.1 micra. Since this is a factor of 50 smaller than the intrinsic voids, the HIV can pass through the condom, she explained.

“The condom and other barrier methods have the highest failure rate in preventing pregnancy and in protecting against sexually transmitted infections (STI) especially the human papilloma virus which is the major cause of cervical cancer in women,” said Aguirre.

However, the RH bill’s advocates say these are not true. The side effects of pills, they say, are just temporary and some of them do even prevent cervical cancer.

Will it promote promiscuity or not?

One of the fears of the conservative Church is that after the passage of the bill, promiscuity will be rampant among the youth.

Rev. Fr. Gregory D. Gaston, academic dean of the Holy Apostles Senior Seminary, Makati City, said that the RH bill seeks to establish a national family planning program that would include mandatory sex education and instruction on use of birth control for students in Grade V and higher levels in all public schools. The Catholic Church, he said, considers this “immoral”.

“The so-called sex-education programs promote promiscuity under the guise of reproductive health and reproductive rights. Children and adolescents will be taught to have satisfying and safe sexual experiences outside marriage. This is exactly the opposite of the virtues of holy purity, modesty and respect for oneself and others being taught by the Holy Church,” he said in a statement.

On the other hand, Emee Lei Albano, a Catholic and a youth advocate of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in the Philippines, said in an interview with Bulatlat that the youth nowadays are more intelligent and responsible enough to know what is right and what is wrong for them.

“I think the RH bill will just protect them and won’t make them immoral, unlike what some people wants us to believe,” she said.

Will it solve the Philippines’ problems?

Some experts on bioethics say that while they commend efforts to improve the quality of life of the Filipino people and that they agree that there is a need to address present problems in reproductive health, they do not think House Bill No. 5043 address these in a holistic manner for it focuses mainly on pregnancy prevention.

A statement titled “Consensus Statement on Reproductive Bill 5043”, which was signed and approved by Southeast Asian Center for Bioethics, argued that while sex education is an important part in the integral development of the child, the responsibility lies first with the parents.

The statement was signed by Fr. Fausto B. Gomez, OP; Angeles T. Alora, MD; Edna Monzon, MD, president of the Catholic Physicians’ Guild of the Philippines and chairman of Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of Dominican-run University of Santo Tomas, chair of the Department of Bioethics at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Faculty of Medicine and Surgery; Mayumi Bismark, MD, president of the Bioethics Society of the Philippines; and Mrs. Lucia V. Soltes of the Catholic Nurses Guild of the Philippines in 2008.

“Their role should be stressed. It should also involve the school with teachers who should be educated. The absence of content regarding values in the way sex education is being taught gives an impression that there is no universal value, human sexuality, not sex education, should be taught,” the statement reads.

“The program should provide information and definitions which are accurate and free of contradictions: the antiabortion stance of the bill is contraindicated by the promotion of contractive agents (IUD and hormonal contraceptives) which actually act after fertilization and are potentially abortifacient agents,” the statement further read.

“Nevertheless, clinical decisions, as permeated by RH, cannot be mandated (refusing to refer patients to family planning services based on conscientious objection is penalized) but must be left to the informed conscience of the health practitioner.”

“Human freedom is a universal right. Health professionals and educators should be free to conscientiously object without fear of penalty and sanction,” the statement stressed.

However, the FFPD and other RH advocates maintained:

We strongly believe that couples, especially women, should be given the freedom to choose the path they will take in raising their family. This is a commitment our country made several times. We affirmed this right in 1968, during the International Year for Human Rights where United Nations Member States recognized the right of individuals and couples to decide their family size. In August 1981, the Philippines ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which clearly upholds women’s right to reproductive health services and education. And in 1995, we again made a promise to the rest of the world to provide our people with access to reproductive health services when we signed the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action and the Beijing Conference on Women Programme of Action.

We have been waiting for decades for our country to honor its commitments to the world – to make real its promise to uphold our people’s right to reproductive health and family planning. While we have waited and debated for decades on the matter, our women and young girls have been suffering and thousands have lost their lives – 10 women are dying every 24 hours due to pregnancy related complications, while young girls as young as 13 years old are getting pregnant. This because they lack the information and family planning supplies that would have provided them with an option.

We need to join hands for this national legislation that will bring tremendous improvements in the lives of our people. This is not about politics or religion. This is about, believing that each one of us should have the chance to live a healthy and dignified life, a human right that must be upheld regardless of one’s faith and belief.

The latest SWS survey about the acceptance of the bill showed that 71 percent of respondents are in favor of the pending RH bill, while 76 percent support the bill’s provision requiring public schools to teach family planning education. (First appeared at Bulatlat.com, February 21, 2009)