Why Is Reproductive Health Still “Controversial” in the Philippines?

The pending bill on reproductive health care in the Philippines is often deemed controversial simply because some outspoken members of the powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy consider it so. To the conservative Catholic hierarchy, the most controversial portion of the bill has to do with contraception (which it equates with abortion) and sex education.

However, a recent survey indicates that the majority of Filipinos (a lot of them Roman Catholics) do not seem to think family planning is controversial. Over fifty-two percent of a representative sample agreed that modern family planning methods should be included in public health care and sixty-eight percent of respondents agreed that family planning services should be provided for by law. Over fifty-four percent even support sex education in schools. 

But how did an otherwise banal piece of legislation, which simply provides standards, infrastructure and a budget for public health care services ever become so divisive? Given the differences that do exist among faiths (and those who are non-believing) on the issues of contraception, abortion and sex education, is a consensus about the role of government possible? 

One attempt to shed some light on how these issues are framed, discussed and debated in the public was conducted by the Ateneo School of Government (ASG). It studied how the media frames population issues and reproductive health, and found that some of the most dominant frames used by the media in the last four years include the themes of “population control,” “contraception” and “abortion.” 

Despite the clear references by advocates to “rights,” “health” and “women’s reproductive choice,” these frames were rarely picked up and did not prominently feature in the media. The researchers cited the few in media who did utilize these frames and acknowledged Rina Jimenez David as one of the most consistent.  

Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña, ASG Director and Dr. Clarissa David, Professor at the UP College of Mass Communication, who led the study, said the ASG study can help facilitate a genuine discussion of the issues around rights, reproductive health and even the Catholic faith. By recognizing the role that media plays in framing the issues being debated, the study also presents a challenge to both sides in the debate, who after all, influence the media through their positions and statements. 

On one hand, they noted how advocates on either side of the debate often tend to “talk past” each other, rarely meeting head on what the other side is saying about a certain issue. Dr. La Viña observed that this indicates that those engaging in the debate do not really listen to what the other side is saying. 

Dr. La Viña’s observation in fact rings true when one considers how many of those who are opposed to the idea of reproductive health as rights still refuse to acknowledge that “population control agendas” and the idea of demographic targets have always been challenged and resisted by human rights advocates, not the least of them, women’s rights groups. The same observation can be made about some RH advocates who at times have will invoke the separation of church and state, interpreting secularism to mean the exclusion of religion in the policy debate. 

In the past, whenever media made a reference to the “Catholic” position on RH including family planning and contraception, it usually resorted to quoting the opinion of the Catholic hierarchy based on teaching against contraception in the Humanae Vitae, disregarding the differences of views among Catholics. Many in the local media highlight the “sensational,” fanning the fires of controversy by zooming in on the clash between outspoken Bishops and the bill’s proponents in Congress.  

In the past few years, however, Filipino Roman Catholics have also begun speaking out about their different views on reproductive rights. Most recently, a group of Professors from the Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit founded Roman Catholic university came out in support of the bill on reproductive health. Using no less than Roman Catholic social teaching as a basis for their position, the group of prominent academics included theologians, philosophers, doctors and social scientists.  

Apart from being acrimonious, the debates on RH (and all matters relating to sexuality in public policy) have often seemed futile, with no possible compromise in sight. But the ASG study gives us important insight on how the debate on the right to reproductive health is severely limited when the “frames” used by media (and advocates on either side) end up formulaic. Instead of a lively public discussion, which engages the issues where they are most felt, participated in by those affected, “media exchanges” that have become the exclusive domain of high-profile Bishops, experts and lawmakers, seemingly lead us nowhere near possible compromises. The examples by groups like Catholics for RH and the ADMU faculty, however, show us a different development and imparts important lessons: while differences need not be settled with finality, what remains important is openness. Having the conviction to take a stand does not lie solely in stating that position but by bravely (and sincerely) listening to others different from your own. 

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  • invalid-0

    It’s nice to see an article that mentions the RH bill. Being in the Philippines, it is rare for me to see any positive comments about the RH bill. I think though since interning for Planned Parenthood International’s Prevention and Management of Post Abortion Complications (PMAC) project in Quezon City, I have observed how the views of conservative Catholic Church leaders have a tremendous impact with regards to the passage of this bill.

    While separation of church and state has been delineated in the Philippine government, little of that separation is actually seen where congressmen and congresswomen who vehemently argue against the RH bill have explicitly stated that the bill’s proposals of contraception, age appropriate comprehensive sexual education, and post abortion care are against God’s will, is an attack on the Catholic Church, and destroys the sanctity of human life. Since Filipinos are predominantly Catholic, it seems any support for legislation that even mentions “abortion” becomes synonymous with being anti-Filipino.

    Among many RH bill interpolations, I was fortunate to observe interpolations on November 18 and 19. Among the several debates, particularly interesting was determining the meaning of “conception.” RH bill proponent Congressman Edcel Lagman cited several medical sources from published American and Philippine medical journals to back his argument that conception begins at the implantation of the fertilized ovum into the uterine lining. Citing the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Dartmouth Medical School’s definition of conception, Lagman argued that emergency contraception would not be an abortifacient as emergency contraception prevents the implantation of the fertilized egg into the uterine wall, thus preventing conception.

    In response to Lagman’s argument, RH bill opponent Congressman Raul Del Mar cited several google sites to back his argument that a fertilized ovum alone is defined as conception, as if proudly boasting google was an equally reliable source of information than published medical journals. Several times throughout the course of the debate, Del Mar conceded that his personal definition conflicted with that of Lagman while Lagman made it clear that his definition was not a personal definition, but it was a scientific, medical definition as provided by American medical journals and research findings.

    As Lagman countered each of Del Mar’s arguments quoting reliable scientific and medical research against Del Mar’s questionable google research, it had become obvious that the arguments of the RH bill’s opponents were unpersuasive, unreliable, and oftentimes questionably fabricated whereupon the interpolations would strategically be interrupted by RH opponents of the House, calling for a quorum.

    As 22 interpolations are scheduled in Congress until the final vote for the RH bill happens in February 2009, to me the reality is that the Catholic Church really does hold domination over reproductive rights activists in the Philippines. As someone on the front lines, reproductive health still is controversial in the Philippines due to the reality that bullying Church leaders have the wealth to monopolize major media outlets and condemn the RH bill, while reproductive rights activists appear small because their voices can’t pay major media outlets to be heard.

  • invalid-0

    “to me the reality is that the Catholic Church really does hold domination over reproductive rights activists in the Philippines. As someone on the front lines, reproductive health still is controversial in the Philippines due to the reality that bullying Church leaders have the wealth to monopolize major media outlets and condemn the RH bill, while reproductive rights activists appear small because their voices can’t pay major media outlets to be heard.”

    Though I do agree with this comment, I feel that the reality is slowly changing.A lot of young people are now saying yes to choice and the reproductive bill (one proof is the amount of people who support this in facebook: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=27617482169&ref=mf)

    I think all we need in the Philippines is more information (and budget to disseminate the information) to make people stand up for their rights and say no to Church bullying. A lot of groups are already supporting the bill in Congress and last I heard, more people were on our side during the last hearing, than that of the anti-RH side.

    Also, some politicians are afraid to support the bill because they know that the Catholic Church has a big influence on their re-election. BUT with more support (locally and internationally), I am personally convinced that this RH Bill would be passed in the Philippines.

    As Carlos Celdran stated in the RH bill facebook group:

    “I am sick and tired of hearing that more that 50% of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unwanted.”

    “I am appalled by the fact that 1 out of 4 of these unwanted pregnancies result in an illegal abortion with complications that end up in the deaths of mothers and their babies.”

    I am tired of the Catholic Church of the Philippines getting involved in affairs of the Philippine state.

    “I am a believer that contraception is NOT abortion.”

    “Put the Bishops in their place. Show congress that there is truth to the survey that 90% of Filipinos (Catholic) want access to ARTIFICIAL BIRTH CONTROL METHODS.”