The Heat is On: Reproductive Health as an Electoral Agenda in the Philippines

Editor's note: Today we welcome Carolina S. Ruiz-Austria, writing from the Philippines. She has experience in women's rights, law and journalism, and will be reporting on reproductive health in Southeast Asia.

In the tropics, where year-round warm weather is expected, summer temperatures hitting 33-36 degrees (Celsius) in Manila is still considered extreme.

But the summer heat isn't the only thing approaching fever like extremes. It is also the height of a mid-term electoral campaign. Politicians of every color and persuasion are making rounds to win votes.

Who would think that something as mundane as condoms and pills, would ever figure as electoral issues? In a country with a Catholic hierarchy growing ever more conservative and influential in government policy-making, those seeking re-election have been known to conveniently change their positions on "reproductive health policy" at a drop of a hat.

While previous and current surveys about family planning and contraception consistently demonstrate that Catholics aren't influenced by what the Catholic hierarchy dictates, Filipino politicians are an entirely different story.

In 2003, after coming out at one time strongly in support of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and at another time flatly refusing to fund family planning commodities in the national budget, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo finally laid out her real position on Family Planning. The Department of Health and the Population Commission are now spearheading what is the exclusively Natural Family Planning (NFP) focused program of the Arroyo administration.

A city health administrator in a province just outside Metro Manila told me two weeks ago that the Mayor (who is the President's political ally and seeking re-election) has followed suit proclaiming himself "Pro-Life." In 2006, he defeated a local initiative (this time supported by the Vice Mayor, his political opponent), which could have funded the local demand for family planning commodities.

Her mayor wasn't the first to do so. Manila's mayor is the National President of Pro-Life Philippines and in 2001 he adopted a policy "discouraging" the use of modern family planning methods, labeling all of them as abortifacients. In turn, local government officials dependent on the city for funds interpreted it as a ban. In 2004 he was among those interviewed by the BBC and he unabashedly proclaimed his policy as such: a ban on modern contraception.

Here however, the "Pro-Choice/Pro-Life" distinction doesn't quite aptly sum up how the battle lines are drawn across the "official Catholic position" and the rest of what might be considered "liberal" positions. Apart from the vocal sections of the Catholic Bishop's conference, Catholics in politics, media, the health professions and even those leading the women's movement can be found on the other side of the debacle.

Like others working at the level of community health provision or the barangay, the city health administrator complained about the effects of the "stock-out " in pills and condoms brought about by the USAID phase out of donations, which began in 2001.

Yet the contest to fund family planning commodities isn't entirely due to just fickle individual politicians nor the USAID phase out. In 1991, the Philippines embarked on what was supposed to usher a shift in the mode of governance through an emphasis on "local autonomy." When the local government code was adopted, it was supposed to decentralize government services including the provision of basic health care. It fell in line with budget cuts across state provided services.

From 1992-2000, politics enjoyed a brief respite from the influential Catholic hierarchy when neither President Fidel V. Ramos (a protestant) and his successor in 1998, Joseph Estrada (a movie actor), gave the Catholic Bishops any special favors as far as health or population and development policy were concerned.

In turn, the Department of Health in those days outlined programs reflecting the Reproductive Health framework based on the ICPD. Years later, though none of those previous administrative orders were withdrawn, they have been overtaken by the current administration's insistence on NFP and with the President herself insisting that she is leaving it up to the local governments.

Stepping up to meet these challenges head on, is Abanse Pinay!, currently the only "feminist " political partylist which has a stated women's health and reproductive health centerpiece agenda. Along with broad movements pushing for the adoption of clear-cut reproductive health policy, Abanse's line-up includes Tessie Banaynal Fernandez (a women's rights activist from Lihok Pilipina in Cebu), Kalayaan Pulido (former Chief of Staff of Abanse elected representative Pat Sarenas), and Yasmin Lao (a Muslim feminist and peace activist).

Abanse Pinay (literally meaning "Forward, Filipino Women!") held office in the 11th and 12th Congress but failed to capture a seat in the last 2004 elections.

Yet the partylist system with all the egalitarian visions behind its adoption has certainly gone a long way from what the framers of the 1987 constitution intended it to be. A far cry from Abanse Pinay and other reputable partylists, a multitude of fake partylists have sprouted espousing all sorts of dubious agendas. Indeed the system which was supposed to allow for representation of erstwhile, marginalized sectors is under fire having been flooded by spawns of the traditional elite parties many of them allegedly funded by the President herself.

Photo caption: Campaign posters and paraphernalia litter every conceivable nook and cranny of the city streets despite the prohibition against posting campaign materials outside the designated areas. "Buhay" in Filipino literally means "life." A partylist running on a Catholic Church supported Pro-Life agenda it is seeking a second term in Philippine Congress. CSRA. 2007

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  • chi

    Whatever heat has been stewing us escapes our political leaders. If government cares to listen more to reason and less to the proddings of the Catholic church, we wouldn't be in such a mess over the stock outs of contraceptives in many public health clinics now. Dwindling supply in contraceptives in many local government units (LGUs) have forced many women to resort to drastic moves such as seeking unsafe abortion. Instead, President Arroyo's solution is to push the Natural Family Planning Program, a blatant attack on the right of individuals and couples to informed choice. LGUs are receiving confusing signals. Should they? Or shouldn't they (purchase contraceptives and promote wider choice of methods)? When no less than the chief executive states a preference for natural family planning, that's sufficient enough dose of incentive for LGUs not to look out for other options to solve the problem. Its less expensive in the short term. But frighteningly costly over time.

  • carolina-austria

    Thank you for your comment, Chi and for mentioning such an important issue of our time and our context: "abortion." Yes, in a context where it is usually unsafe and clandestine, abortion is a drastic option for many Filipino women. But the problem also is, in the Philippines, it is very difficult to even talk about abortion in the contexts where they actually take place that is, in actual women's lives. Often (as in local media)the mere mention of abortion is akin to drawing the proverbial "line in the sand" and frames the entire issue into a debate about "when life begins," hence we have reached a point when even modern contraceptives have been labeled abortifacient.

    Carolina S. Ruiz Austria, Senior Lecturer

    College of Law, University of the Philippines

    Board Chairperson, Womenlead Foundation, Inc.

  • invalid-0

    HI, do you have ny updates on this?