Global Gag Rule Sensationalizes Abortion


This is the final installment of the Reproductive Health 2007 Roundup on the Philippines. This time we turn to the "ideological battles" that were (and continue to be) waged through words and popular media, especially in the context of the struggle to "legitimize" RH claims in law and policy. While similar contests are also taking place on the international level, given that US Politics has long played a major role on the character of US foreign policy on sexual and reproductive rights, of close interest to the Philippines is the prospect of US Elections in 2008.

A War of Wor(l)ds: The Politics of Reproductive Health

"The theoretical links between reproductive health, gender and sexuality constitute a complex and unstable fabric." Sonia Correa (2005)

Sexual and reproductive rights activist Sonia Correa notes that historically, "reproductive health" emerged as an "umbrella" term after the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo and the 1995 World Conference of Women in Beijing, within which "radical" notions of reproductive rights and sexual health, as well as issues related to sexual rights, were initially subsumed.

However, the legitimization of the term "reproductive health" eventually led to its use in ways that responded to the needs of different interest groups and actors, which no longer necessarily incorporated the frameworks of gender equality and socially transformative agendas.

The Media's Discussion of Reproductive Health

In 2007 in the Philippines, much of the popular debate around reproductive health in the country was still happening on the basic level of legitimation and recognition. Popular media was engaged on all sides of the discussion but media was rarely a source of enlightenment.

Even as a handful of local reporters and columnists in major newspapers like Rina Jimenez David, Michael Tan, and Dr. Alberto Romualdez were leading the discussion of "reproductive health" as rights, many in media continued to frame the debate simplistically as a case of "Catholic Church versus the Population Control forces."

Reporters continued to label "RH advocates" as population control forces and align the RH bill with population control policy, harking back to the days of the Marcos dictatorship when policy around population was backed by a demographic imperative in the Constitution. In turn, it had the tendency to portray the Catholic hierarchy's position as an opposition to a supposed push for draconian State policy.

In truth, neither population control nor the Catholic hierarchy's conservative anti-reproductive health positions respected the right of persons to decide on their reproductive well being. Likewise, the 1987 Constitution as well as subsequent commitments made by the Philippines to the ICPD and the Beijing Platform demonstrated a clear departure from a population control framework. Unfortunately, many in media still missed out on this distinction and save for the better informed journalists, and the popular discussion of the issue continued to be framed along these terms.

RH advocates fought back, of course, with a measure of success in not only updating allies within media on the rights-based character of claims for reproductive health services, but also in addressing the most difficult but pressing issues like clandestine abortions. Reproductive Health Networks like Philmade and Media Advocates for Reproductive Health (MAHRE), have made headway in many areas, especially among local media networks.

In a previous blog I noted how MAHRE and Likhaan, a local women's NGO advocating for sexual and reproductive rights, recently turned things around by zooming in on the rising trend of abortions in the Visayas region in the Philippines. MAHRE and Likhaan even got sympathetic write-ups in two editorial/opinion pieces (see another here) in local media, demonstrating the way forward to compassionate and sensible discussions on what was always perceived as a divisive issue.

Meanwhile, dominant media continued to rely on "abortion clinic raids" as sensational news staples. Unlike their local counterparts in media which were already beginning to take a more sober and informed approach to tackling the issue of abortion, popular, self-styled "crusading" journalists on TV reported on abortion clinic crackdowns without delving into the complexities of the issue or even bothering to ask why despite the more than hundred year old prohibition, studies continue to peg abortions in the Philippines at 473,000 cases annually.

The Global Gag Rule Contributes to Sensational Treatment of Abortion

Indeed, policy against abortion is also clearly at the heart of the "Republican/Democratic" ideological divide in the US. There, the existence of policies like the foreign assistance policy on reproductive health, the global gag rule, which requires that groups receiving funds for family planning pledge not to discuss abortion in any of their programs or materials, and AIDS prevention and treatment standards prioritizing abstinence, have always solely depended on a Republican presidency.

Notably, this conditionality represents a curious programmatic imposition on local advocacy and essentially places limits to "information and expression" since legally speaking, the conduct of abortion is always subject to local law anyway. In the Philippines, abortion (save for a debated exception to save the life of the mother), remains illegal. The "global gag rule" serves purpose parallel to that of the sensational "abortion clinic raid" by keeping the issue in its current place: surrounded by stigma and well outside the realm of public discussion and deliberation.

Yet the links between the US and the Philippines (specifically on matters of reproductive health and policy) go well beyond the issue of abortion or the global gag rule. The Philippines, as a long time recipient of USAID funding on matters of population, health and, in recent history, "health sector reform," is also facing a crisis in health care availability. Coupled with the mass migration of health professionals, the crisis is not only one of access to health care but availability itself. While originally pitched in the eighties as "structural and systems based" reform, "health sector reform (HSR)" is has become the literal byword for undertaking (further) privatization of health care in the country. The USAID has had a keen interest in facilitating "HSR" in the Philippines where a number of technical assistance projects emphasize the privatization of public hospitals. Indeed, while the final outcome of US Presidential elections in 2008 will surely have an impact on local (as well as worldwide) politics around reproductive health, a great deal still depends on how local advocates are able to face both opportunities and challenges that emerge from it.

Next week: News on the Court of Appeals Petition filed by women in Manila to invalidate the ban on contraceptives in the City's local health services, instituted since 2000.

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