There’s a sticker, unpeeled, on my father’s office desk. I don’t know where it’s from, but it’s meant to demonstrate one’s opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill. “Say no,” the sticker reads, a thick red diagonal line dashing across the glossy sheet of vinyl. Maybe it was given out on a recent Sunday at the local parish; maybe it’s meant for the family car.
You might have been hearing a lot about this bill, first proposed more than a decade ago, in 1998, and which, if approved, will serve as a kind of national population policy, giving Filipinos — especially the poor — access to proper sex education, family planning devices and programs, and related free or low-cost social services through taxpayer support. There’s been plenty of debate and controversy about it, to be sure; as for why, well — you must keep in mind that majority of the 94-million-strong Philippine population is Catholic, and that any talk of things like contraceptives, birth control pills, vasectomies, and sex education is likely to be met with raised eyebrows. Here, divorce isn’t even legal. (We’re something of a standout in that regard, Malta having voted positively in a non-binding referendum on legalizing divorce.) So you can imagine the humorlessness with which the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had, at one point, threatened to excommunicate President Aquino, if he should ever signify his support for the RH Bill.
As for why now, don’t ask me; true, this is the first time that legislation of this kind has won the support of the health committee in the Philippine Congress, although it seems to me that the whole affair has less to do with politics than with a kind of divine comedy. Of which I, too, have been thrown into being a part. “The problem with ‘pro-choice,’” tweeted my younger brother Josemaria (who is named after the founder of Opus Dei, and who until last month hadn’t yet graduated from college), “is functionalism.” Being a proponent of the bill, I replied that the problem with being anti-RH Bill, or “pro-life” as the opposition wishes to be called, is theism: after all, just before this particular exchange, the CBCP had spent close to a million pesos — possibly more — on the placement of anti-RH Bill advertorials in several national dailies. Josemaria sounded irritated. “Someone’s intent on building straw hats.” Then I wrote, not without disproportionate, hair-pulling fury, “Don’t be so cocky just because you’ll have a medal round your neck,” right before un-following him on Twitter and blocking him from my Facebook Wall. I told you it’s funny. But it’s the kind of comedy that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
And it’s the kind of bad taste that I felt as a kid whenever I heard someone utter the word “condom”. It sounded like a Bad Word, and I believed it was a Bad Word. “Condom” dirtied up sacred body parts like the penis and the vagina with bastard associations. As though the word itself was equivalent to sin — never mind using the thing. But like all young boys, I was drawn and tickled by the mystery surrounding this Badness, by the adult seriousness with which I’d been told, in hushed parental whispers, about the immorality of contraceptives. I remember one early summer morning at the local basketball playground when I stood by the entrance gate next to a garbage can, riveted by the sight of a crinkled, soggy latex chute, as gelatinous as a jellyfish and as clinical-looking as a test tube. Oh my, I thought. So that’s what it looks like. By then I was convinced that a world of truths was being kept from me. One such truth is this: there was no dead embryo in that garbage can.
Murdered five-day old babies, the carcinogenic qualities of some oral contraceptives, the likelihood that condoms will promote promiscuity, the spread of AIDS, and abortion, the presumed evils of an increasingly secular society: these (and some) are being cited by the “pro-lifers” to present their case. But forget about the bill for a second; forget about statistics and theories on population economics; forget that there’s even a debate. With or without this political culture war, there would still be an unnecessary number of Filipino women and men living in shanties — in what a visiting American friend had described as put-together “scraps of tin and cardboard” — or sleeping at night with only the comfort of laid-out newspapers on pavement; in the daytime doing nothing but beg foreigners for “dollar, dollar” with babies pressed to their breasts to arouse sympathy; and they would still truly believe that they can afford to have four, five, six children and fornicate their way to raggedy defeat more than they can afford to go against what the church says about contraceptives. I know because I asked: there is a similarly striving woman somewhere in the streets of Malate, selling twenty-, fifty-peso second-hand books by Hemingway and Nietzsche (among others) — laconic brilliance and French existentialism spread out on sidewalk — and if you go ask her why she thinks condoms are bad, you’ll get the same answer.
There would also still be an unnecessary number of pregnant Filipino women jumping down the stairs, hoping to cause a miscarriage. Or they’re abusing fake or generic Cytotec (gastric ulcer drugs), bought from someone in an Internet forum named “Crizzy” or from the most questionable corners of the Quiapo blackmarket — without, needless to say, prescriptions. Or, if the goal is to prevent instead of end pregnancy, they’re drinking herbal potions from who knows where, containing who knows what. These are the options: thudding on stair treads, anguished online pleas, ripened cervices, uterine ruptures.
There would still be the case from two months ago at Universidad de Manila, in which a political science freshman took a .38 revolver to class and shot his pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend in the head after a disagreement on what to do with the baby. He shot himself shortly afterward. They are as dead as dead, as lifeless as a statistic, but I would not believe anyone who tells me that age-appropriate sex education, birth control, or emergency obstetric care could not have done something — anything — to keep those teenagers alive.
And there would still be, for both men and women, the very horrible anxiety from which suffers anyone waiting for the results of an HIV test. If you have never had to do that, take my word for it: it’s not fun. It’s crippling. No amount of Xanax will soften the blow of hearing the word “positive”; neither will forgiveness from God soothe the guilty conscience of a bare-backer waiting, wanting, hoping, praying to hear the word “negative”. I have heard terrible stories from friends with the virus — stories of disease, stories of death — but if there is anything I might be able to observe from the way these have been told, it’s the resolution to be smarter sexual beings, and the joyous persistence of life.
So forgive me for disagreeing with people who accuse me — and other proponents of the bill — of “functionalism;” with generations of clergy and conservatives who deny Filipinos the freedom to question and reject the Badness of contraceptives; with members of the opposition who call themselves “pro-life.” Forgive me for disagreeing with the term with which they have labeled themselves. Being “pro-life” necessitates an experience, an understanding, of the struggles of humanity, and it requires the acceptance that, frankly, humanity sometimes works to disengage us from our youthful innocence. We do not become advocates of murder for believing there are no dead embryos in the aftermath of protected sex.
“You wonder whether you should laugh or cry,” an observant Swiss friend wrote on the matter of this bill. I ought to have told him that the matter calls for neither; it calls instead for more disagreeing. And I’ll do just that, vehemently so, should anyone peel off the sticker on my father’s desk and paste it where I can see. I’m pro-life, I’ll say. And I’d mean nothing funny by it at all.