The Moral Option of Reproductive Rights

Carolina Austria

Candidates attended a forum on reproductive health issues in the Philippines, despite warnings from the Catholic Church against the "evils" of a reproductive health agenda.

Despite the barrage of warnings read from the pulpit at Sunday mass and "commandments" addressed to the Catholic faithful against candidates with reproductive health agendas, candidates (most of them Catholics) still managed to attend a forum sponsored by the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network (RHAN) on May 4 at the University of the Philippines.

While actual Partylist candidates from Abanse Pinay, Agham and Aksa actually attended the forum in person, senatorial candidates Panfilo Lacson, Sonia Roco and Vic Magsaysay as well as the Partylist Akbayan, only sent representatives to read prepared speeches.

Honestly, while it was mildly entertaining this late in the elections to watch and hear the hapless representatives of the senatorial candidates dance around the issue of reproductive health, it was gratifying to hear from non-traditional politicians who proved most articulate and prepared on the issues of healthcare, population and reproductive rights. And who else could they have been but the Partylist representatives?

The Philippine Partylist system was adopted beginning 1995 upon the enactment of a law which put into practice the concept of sector representation elected through proportional representation, introduced in the 1987 Constitution, following the famed 1986 EDSA bloodless revolution.

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Patylists, which garner at least two percent of the votes cast for all the listed partylists for an election are entitled to at least one seat in Congress. Widely successful partylists have held as many as three seats since 1998. Since 2004 however, there have been accusations leveled against traditional political parties and politicians who have reportedly been setting up "fake" partylists. These accusations have not been easy to shake given the current Commission on Elections' waning credibility.

Akbayan, a widely popular Partylist with a socialist platform is seeking its fourth term in Congress. Akbayan has a comprehensive political agenda, which pinpoints the basic problems of healthcare in the country rooted in a problematic budget, largely due to debt servicing. They specifically have committed to work for healthcare spending, raising it from the current three to five percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Aksa, a party led by Elizabeth Angsioco (a long time feminist activist) emphasizes the urgency of the issue of "maternal mortality," citing the alarming rate of maternal death in the country as tantamount to the mass murder of Filipino women.

Agham, a newcomer partylist led by the former President of the University of the Philippines, Dr. Emil Javier, spoke of wishing to "raise the IQ" of Congress, even just a little. (And really while we laughed with him, I'm sure everyone realized it was not really a joke.) With a largely scientific and academic community backing, Agham is running on a platform to introduce new ways of doing policy by emphasizing evidence and researched based policy-making.

On the other hand, Abanse Pinay candidate, Kalayaan Pulido was most upfront about Abanse's feminist and women's rights agenda and how specifically, this puts the party on a collision course with the current administration an the President herself who has vowed to veto any reproductive health measure.

But with the Philippine mid-term election just around the corner, candidates, specifically Partylist representatives who attended the forum, couldn't help but speak about their fear of an impending "evil," and it was most assuredly not the "evil" warned against by the conservative sectors of the Catholic hierarchy.

No, the "evil" in question this coming election isn't divorce, reproductive rights or even homosexuality, making their way into political agendas, contrary to the claims of conservative bishops, but rather the imminent evil of cheating at the polls.

Even a recent survey confirms that over forty percent of Filipino voters suspect that there will be cheating in the 2007 polls and that the one who is going to be doing it is the incumbent administration.

This is not surprising given that the 2004 Presidential elections was marred by electoral fraud, the "Hello Garci" scandal which blew wide open in media, following the leakage of recorded telephone conversations between then incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and then COMELEC official, Virgilio Garcellano at the height of counting the 2004 polls.

Actual tracks of the incriminating conversations became widely available through the internet and in the age of "burn and share," became even more accessible to the public, with the particular portion of the President's voice saying "Hello Garci," even becoming popularly downloaded ring tones.

Yet with the majority of Congress behind her, Arroyo foiled two impeachment attempts by the fragmented opposition and even delivered a purported "apology" on public television (without legally admitting culpability) at the impropriety of her acts, leaving what many pundits consider a very "jaded" citizenry at the point of giving up on any hope of clean elections.

The irony of course is that even the official Catholic church, which in the Philippines boasts of a long tradition overlapping with progressive social movements in safeguarding democratic processes and institutions, recognizes that the very same "evil." Indeed, in different parts of the country, a cleric (and former one) have joined the electoral fray, vowing to make changes in politics. One has even presented himself a fourth alternative to the two separate administration-backed gubernatorial candidates and the opposition in the President's home province. Meanwhile Garcellano is running for Congress under the President's party.

But notably, no other President has ever most single-handedly ensured the adoption of policies so in line with Catholic church teaching on sexual morality as Gloria Macpagal Arroyo. This makes her an invaluable ally to the Catholic hierarchy.

At this point, it is obvious that the official Catholic church does not quite have a monopoly on advising Filipino voters (or for that matter, Catholic Filipino voters) about the moral option and that is putting it very politely.

Perhaps it would be better (for a change) to take heed from feminists and human rights advocates. Atty. Claire Luczon, Executive Director of Womenlead Foundation and RHAN Legal Committee Chairperson warned against "demonizing" candidates supportive of divorce, modern contraceptives, sex education and gay rights, pointing out that "those who demonize such candidates dehumanize the people whose lives will be greatly improved by such advocacies."

We do not need elected officials who will use their position and power to impose their own religious beliefs upon others, even upon those who are not of the same religion or belief. A government leader serves Catholics and non-Catholics alike and has no right to violate the rights and freedoms of others in the guise of religion and belief. To do so would be undemocratic, unjust and oppressive.

Caption: The Heart of the Matter: Abanse Pinay candidate Kalayaan Pulido shares how easily Filipino voters relate to issues of reproductive health and family planning.

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