When Abortion is Not a Choice

Carolina Austria

Recent increases in abortions in the Philippines have been linked to the lack of control women have over timing and spacing of children, and have resulted in improved understanding in some media about challenges women face.

While the right to decide on and have an abortion remains a core issue for the recognition of women’s rights and ultimately, moral capacities, it isn’t often that the context of these choices are actually brought into the picture. 

Media Advocates for Reproductive Health (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. 

Citing the Allan Guttmacher study which reported that from 11 abortions in 1000 cited in its 1994 report, the trend as of the year 2000 is now 17 in 1000 cases. 

By emphasizing the conditions under which these abortions occur, MAHRE and Likhaan received sympathetic write-ups in two editorial/opinion pieces (see another here). 

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They pointed out that women are having abortions because they lack control over the number of children they want to have and even the spacing of births. Many have been resorting to abortion in an act of desperation. One editorial even the raised the question of whether they had a choice at all. 

“It all boils down to family planning,”  according to Dr. Junice Melgar, Likhaan Executive Director. 

Elsewhere we noted how many in the national media usually tend to present abortion narrowly, failing to inform the discussion and often only serving as staples of sensational “news.” 

Indeed, in having taken the discussion of abortion in the local media even just a small step outside the standard “fire and brimstone” frame, MAHRE and Likhaan accomplish no small feat. 

The local media also highlighted the fact that 44 percent of women who undergo abortions in the Visayas sought to avoid unintended pregnancies and the financial burden on their families but also aligned it alongside the bigger picture: a conservative lobby against comprehensive reproductive health policy

The conservative sectors of the local Catholic hierarchy as well as the “Pro-Life” lobby has boasted in past about the President’s backing of the Catholic church’s opposition to making reproductive health and family planning available. 

Melgar pointed out however that Catholicism and “Catholic beliefs” have played little part in the decisions Filipino women have made majority of whom (87%), just happen to be Catholic. 

The church’s arguments regarding contraception and sex education have always tended to be simplistic, ranging from labeling contraception as abortion, down to considering all manner of information regarding sexuality as  “leading to promiscuity.” 

On the other hand, by showing the complexity of women’s situations in deciding to have an abortion, advocates here have shown a way forward to a more holistic, hopefully compassionate discussion.

Indeed, coming from a context where majority of abortions are unsafe because in the first place they are illegal, and sixty eight percent of women taking the risk are poor, easily raises compelling issues of social justice that ought to transcend archaic religious notions about sex. 

Frances Kissling asked this a few months ago in a blogpost and her questions leave a lot for pro-choice advocates to continue pondering: 

We cannot imagine coercing a woman to continue a pregnancy that is unsupportable. At the same time, there is something valuable about encouraging public policy and personal decision-making that start from a presumption in favor of life. We interpret life broadly. We say we are in favor of legal abortion because it protects women’s lives. We do not mean just their physical lives; we mean their capacity to live full, free and happy lives. Why, then, should we think that a presumption in favor of life is inappropriately applied to fetal life? Why do we insist that because the fetus is not a person in any theological, scientific, legal or sociological sense, it does not deserve our consideration? Do not people want to know if those of us who advocate a moral right to choose an abortion also approach all aspects of life with wonder and awe? Can we totally separate our attitude toward the justifiable taking of non-personal life in abortion from the other principles of protecting life that have become crucial to our survival as civilized human beings?

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