Reproductive Health Makes Comeback


I'm still getting used to the chilly "fall" season's weather now that I'm a student here in Canada, but folks here at the University of Toronto say this is still pretty mild and that I ought to brace myself for the winter. In the Philippines we have only two seasons (wet and dry), and as winter comes in Canada my thoughts turn to another aspect of the season in Manila, Philippines.

October is the when the annual national budget gets debated in Philippine Congress. One issue which gained media coverage this past month was Rep. Edsel Lagman's pending bill, the "Reproductive Health, Responsible Parenthood and Population Development Act of 2007."

Touting Lagman's bill as a "population management" and "population-directed" measure, many in media neglected to notice that the revised bill by Congressman Lagman also now distinctively bears the term "reproductive health" in the title.

The articles used either "family planning" or "population" even as it quoted Lagman referring to reproductive health:

All we want is to create an environment of freedom of informed choice…It is a reproductive health program without bias for artificial or natural methods. We're promoting both.

The inclusion of the term "Reproductive Health" in the title of the bill (front and center) on draft legislation in the 14th Congress signaled a significant change from the context of the 13th Congress.

In the past Congress, almost all versions of the bills related to reproductive health opted not to integrate the term in the title (except one version filed by Senator Rodolfo Biazon).

After President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo threatened to veto "policy which tried to smuggle in abortion" in her state of the nation address in 2004, pundits took it as a warning against any reproductive health bill's passage, even as the bill itself didn't carry any provision on the legalization of abortion.

By labelling "reproductive health" as a dirty word, and even warning the Anti-Poverty Commission and the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (NCRFW) about mentioning the term, GMA narrowed the terms for legislative engagement before the 13th Congress.

Lagman's earlier bill's was one of many versions which "avoided" reproductive health by burying the term within the bill and adopting "less suspect" titles.

Abortion, even without a legalization provision, but in relation to maternal health, and the availability of quality emergency post abortion services were usually covered up in what was seen then as the "safer" language of "Prevention and Management of Abortion and its Complications."

Lagman, who is well known in the local media as fiercely independent (despite his being in the administration's party), outspoken and someone who "did his homework" (doing his own reading and not relying only on staff) often also had a tendency to be quite intractable on his views about population, which in the past have been framed along the more traditional pre-ICPD "population control" strategies which emphasized demographic targets over, and sometimes in violation of, "free and informed choice."

When he sponsored the "Responsible Parenthood" Bill in the 13th Congress, his version came into controversy when media labelled it as the "two child policy" bill, bringing to mind the draconian Chinese one-child policy as it laid down a scheme of free education incentives exclusively for those who would limit their number of children to no more than two.

And while his bill incorporated some of the elements of key legislation supported by the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network (RHAN), RHAN continued to squarely raise issues about the policy's language and formulation and "population control" framework and frequently debated with the Congressman about the "rights based" and framework of "choice" that the policy needed.

In short, the collaboration with Lagman was at best a critical one and early on, many of us found ourselves on opposing sides of policy strategies and had disagreements with him. With networks like Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), RHAN continued these dialogues and emphasized that the law needed to not only make reproductive health care available and accessible, but also to facilitate people's decision-making.

Before I left Manila, I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting between advocates from the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network and Representative Lagman in May, as he prepared to revise his draft bill for refilling in the newly constituted 14th Congress. In the meeting, the then newly re-elected solon (who was obviously no longer after any votes) raised what seemed to be in the past Congress, unthinkable: "Let's get back reproductive health in key aspects of the bill" (now the even the title) which literally meant facing the challenges to the frame of "reproductive health as right" head on.

He expressed that he had come around to realizing the importance of the rights framework in reproductive health, noting that the role of policy is to enhance choices and not to impose them on people. Without much prodding, he volunteered to drop all the incentive/disincentive scheme provisions of his old bill in relation to benefits and the number of children.

Lagman's decision to take challenges against "reproductive health" head on reclaims well deserved legitimacy and moral authority this side of reproductive health advocacy. While a lot of good intentions were likely invested in the process of haggling over more facially "neutral" terms (or less likely signposts to call the opposition's attention) in past debates, years later, advocates now have a clear opportunity to re-evaluate their positions. Unfortunately many in media are still stuck in the mode of framing these debates simplistically as "the church vs population control," and a lot of them have "boxed in" Congressman Lagman as a "population control" stalwart. For those in reproductive health advocacy and the Congressman, this matter ought to be a good point for more critical collaboration.

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To schedule an interview with Carolina Austria please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.