Elizabeth Fox, Sex and Sensibilities.com summer intern writes about the on-going debate on Reproductive Health (RH) in the Philippines. Prompted by a notice she chances upon in a Church bulletin board, Fox dissects the argument made against the RH Bill and points out the fallacies that are perpetuated in the battle to control women’s wombs and women’s lives.
Opponents of the Reproductive Health bills are saying a lot of things. As discussed in Part One, an anti-RH bills article I recently found in a Makati church contains such skewed statements as: “Artificial contraceptives kill children”; “the contraceptive lifestyle destroys the family”, and “artificial contraceptives injure women’s health.” The fact that this article can be hung up in a public place—a church, moreover, meant to represent truth and trustworthiness to the highest degree—without the slightest acknowledgment of the complexity of these issues, is a huge source of sadness. The most unsettling thing about these statements, though, is that they all seek, via manipulation, scare tactics, and misinformation, to control women, make them feel guilty, and ensure that, as has been the case for all of time, women will continue to be in a position of weakness, unable to make their own decisions about their own bodies.
These statements, like so many put forth by the opposition, are just not true. Artificial contraceptives do not kill children. The contraceptive lifestyle does not destroy the family. And contraceptives do not kill women.
What does kill women, however? Pregnancy and childbirth.
As stated by the Philippine Obstetrical and Gynecological Society (POGS), though there are small risks associated with artificial contraceptive devices, none are as great as the risks associated with pregnancy and delivery. [i] According to USAID, each day around 12 Filipino women die and another 314 women develop disabilities from causes relating to pregnancy or childbirth.[ii] For every woman dying in her most productive years, especially in rural areas, imagine the blow to her community. And for every dead woman who is already a mother, imagine the number of children who are now left motherless, thus putting them at an increased risk for death and other problems like malnutrition,[iii] and, of course, forever without her matchless love and care. 99% of maternal deaths occur in developing countries; this risk is one of the biggest gaps between developed and undeveloped places.[iv] And the worst part is that most of these deaths are entirely preventable.[v]
The provisions of the RH bills relating to improved maternal health will save many lives. Fortunately, they are not highly contested, but what opponents of the other articles of the bills, those concerning expanded education and access to contraceptives, fail to realize is the extent to which maternal mortality is bound up in these issues as well. Opponents of the RH bills call for the lives of all potential children to be saved. But what about all the women who lose their lives while giving life? Putting a body through the strain of multiple pregnancies, especially in close succession, significantly raises a woman’s chances of maternal death.[vi] Having children while still an adolescent, while the mother’s body is still growing (relatively common in the Philippines as 21% of females are giving birth by the age of twenty[vii]), seriously endangers both mother and child.[viii] If these women had access to both family planning education and resources, how many lives could be saved? Botched abortion accounts for 13% of maternal deaths.[ix] In 2005, when Filipino women who had abortions were asked their reasons for doing so, 72% said they could not afford to raise another child, 57% said their current pregnancy was coming too soon after another, and 54% said they had already reached their desired family size.[x] It is obvious from this data that without alternate means of family planning, abortion has become a woman’s only resource in times of desperation. And not only children are dying from the procedure—but women are dying also, and many of them.
How important is a woman’s life? How long will people be willing to continue risking women for the sake of producing more and more offspring, especially if those children may end up unwanted and uncared for? According to the 2008 National Health and Demographic Survey in the Philippines, 54% of married women said they did not want more children, and 19% said they wanted to wait at least two years before their next birth.[xi] Family planning enables women to choose when to have their next child, thus allowing them to space out births, avoid unwanted pregnancies, and limit their exposure to the dangers of pregnancy, abortion, and childbirth. What could happen if every woman had the right—not the command, just the option—to decide when her next pregnancy was going to be, and to have the education and resources by which to realize that decision?
A Baguio priest recently made headlines by asking pro-RH parishioners to leave his service. “What is this mass for you if you are pro-RH? What is going to church?” he reportedly asked.
Statements like this are only born from fatal misunderstanding. The public must know the crucial situation the world is in. The importance of the RH bills must be recognized.
The supplies are available; the policies are waiting in the wings; all that lacks is acceptance of the truth: health is a human right. A woman’s body belongs to that woman alone and it is her right to be educated about it, provided with the resources to care for it, and freed to make her own decisions about what she puts it through—especially when that decision concerns bringing another person into this world. One of the most important things that we can encourage today—for the sake of development, for the sake of the impoverished, the diseased, and those struggling everywhere, for the sake of the countless lives wrapped up in this business of reproduction—is to give our women the right to choose. If every child were wanted, every pregnancy healthy, and every woman empowered, what amazing changes could we see in the Philippines? Support the passage of the RH Bill.
[i] “Philippine Obstetrical and Gynecological Society Position Statement on the Proposed 2010 Reproductive Health Bills.” Philippine Obstetrical and Gynecological Society (POGS). 2010.
[ii] “Philippines: Maternal and Neonatal Program Effort Index”. United States Agency International Development (USAID). 2009.
[iv] “State of World Population 2005: Reproductive Health Fact Sheet”. United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). 2005.
[v] “Making Pregnancy Safer: Maternal Mortality”. World Health Organization (WHO). 2005.
[vi] Calub, Jyasmin. “An MDG Challenge: Reducing Maternal and Infant Mortality”. DevPulse: National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Development Advocacy Factsheet. 2010; 14(1).
[vii] “Philippines: Maternal and Neonatal Program Effort Index”. United States Agency International Development (USAID). 2009.
[ix] “Making Pregnancy Safer: Maternal Mortality”. World Health Organization (WHO). 2005.
[x] Cabigon, Hussain, Juarez, and Singh. “The Incidence of Induced Abortion in the Philippines: Current Level and Recent Trends”. International Family Planning Perspective. 2005 Sept; 31(3):140-9.
[xi] “Philippines: 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey Key Findings”. National Statistics Office. 2008.