“In the legislative history of the Philippine Congress, there has been no time like now!,” Congressman Edcel Lagman confidently declared, stating his optimism that the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill will be passed during the 15th Congress.
Lagman, who is one of the principal authors of the RH Bill has says that he has many reasons to be optimistic – one of them being that the present Aquino government has publicly stated its support for “responsible parenthood” and the RH Bill.
The RH Bill, which has undergone various revisions and changes, has been waiting to be passed for more than 15 years. Its main purpose is to set the guidelines and standards for reproductive health care, specifically:
* Information and access to both natural and modern family planning methods which are medically safe and legally permissible.
Women and couples will have the freedom of informed choice to decide on the mode of family planning they want to adopt based on their needs, personal convictions and religious beliefs.
* Hospital-based family planning.
Family planning methods requiring hospital services like ligation, vasectomy and IUD insertion shall be available in all national and local government hospitals.
* Contraceptives as essential medicines.
Reproductive health products shall be considered essential medicines and supplies mandating government hospitals to include these products in their essential inventory.
* Reproductive health education.
This will be taught by adequately trained teachers from Grade 5 to 4th year high school in an age-appropriate manner. Core subjects will include responsible parenthood, natural and modern family planning, the hazards of abortion, reproductive health and sexual rights, abstinence before marriage, and responsible sexuality.
Reducing maternal deaths
In the Philippines, there are 11 mothers who die every day due to childbirth related causes.
According to RH advocates and health experts, one of the main benefits of the RH Bill is it has three pillars which will help reduce the number of maternal deaths in the country:
1) family planning and contraception;
2) access to quality health care (which means shifting from the services of a “hilot” or traditional birth attendant to a qualified midwife;
3) and access to emergency obstetric care which includes care for post-abortive complications,
If it will be so beneficial, why is the RH Bill so hotly contested and why is it taking so long to pass?
In a nutshell, the strong influence of the Catholic Church has waylaid the passage of the bill.
The Church will not support modern forms of contraception. It will only support natural family planning methods like the rhythm method, which have high failure rates.
No time like now
More and more Filipinos recognize the need for a reproductive health law in the country and Lagman is right to say that there is no time like now to pass on the RH Bill.
A survey conducted by the Social Weather Station in 2008 shows that 71 percent of Filipinos favor the passage of the RH Bill and 66 percent of adult Filipinos want family planning education in the public schools.
After Carlos Celdran’s infamous Damaso stunt last September, even closet supporters of RH came out on the Free Carlos Celdran Facebook fan page. Members reached the thousands in a matter of hours.
Another group, “Excommunicate me, I support the RH Bill”, was formed shortly after.
NGOs picking up the slack
With no RH Bill, there is no national legislation to institutionalize budgets and services for RH care services. This allows for varying RH policies, subject to the whim of the local government officials and their own moral biases such as the notorious Executive Order 003 in the City of Manila, which bans all forms of contraception except natural family planning methods.
Junice Melgar, executive director of Likhaan, an NGO that provides RH services to women in marginalized communities, reported that during Mayor Lito Atienza’s time, some RH workers were harassed. One NGO, Women’s Health Care, shut down their operations.
Melgar added that since then, Likhaan and other NGOs have been picking up the slack, putting in “sweat equity” and contacting patients, spreading the word, making sure they establish roots in the community.
“We were forced to scout for resources ever since we did a research assessing the impact of Atienza’s ban in 2006-2007. We felt it was our ethical duty to respond to the problems that women had shared with us at great risk to their security.”, explained Melgar.
With external funding from the Packard Foundation and supplies donated by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Likhaan is able to fund small clinics and programs in parts of Manila like Vitas, Baseco, Magdalena and Paco.
“We tried to talk with Mayor Lim and the Community Health Office, but they have refused to spend money [on Rh] and provide services; they want the NGOs to do it.”, said Melgar.
In Vitas, Tondo, one the communities that Likhaan serves, the main source of livelihood is the production of charcoal from burning old wood. There are parts of the community that are literally enveloped in smoke. There is garbage and mud everywhere. It is impossible to take a step and not have your foot sink into garbage or mud.
It is here where 31 year old Beth, lives.
Beth is pregnant with her fifth child. She stays at home to take care of her four other children while her husband works as an aide in construction sites.
For her fourth and her current pregnancy, Beth received no pre or post natal check-ups. She is afraid of health clinics because she says she is afraid of injections. One might think that when she mentioned “injections”, she meant “injectables” as a form of contraception. But when asked about family planning, Beth could only give a blank stare; like she had only a vague idea of the concept of planning and spacing pregnancies.
“The RH Bill is a national statute. It would naturally repeal other policies that are not in accordance with it such as Executive Order 003.”, said Lagman.
“It’s time we lower maternal deaths and give every woman an opportunity to finish her education, find productive work and elevate her self-esteem so that she may achieve her full potential. It is time we pass the RH Bill.”, Lagman concluded.
It is time to make women like Beth matter. It is time to pass the RH Bill.
This concludes the three part report on population and development under a media fellowship grant awarded to Sex and Sensibilities.com by the Probe Media Foundation.