A Tale of Three Cities

Carolina Austria

Manila is now famous for its ban on perfectly safe, legal and much needed contraceptives. But other Filipino cities nearby are taking very different stands.

Manila is now famous for its ban on perfectly safe, legal and much needed contraceptives. Sixteen women with their families are suing the Office of the Mayor and City Health to nullify the order that instituted the "ban."

Meanwhile, within weeks of the Manila petition, Manila's next door neighbor, Quezon City, passed an ordinance premised on the notion that "sustainable social development is better assured with a manageable population of healthy, educated and productive citizens."

Earlier, some of the authors who were themselves Catholics expressed unpreparedness for the vituperative labeling and name-calling from the Catholic opposition led by the hierarchy. Clearly still reeling from the incessant attacks, with one Bishop calling the ordinance "anti-life" and a "threat to the sanctity of the family," Councilor Ariel Inton made sure to stress that "the ordinance does not legalize abortion with the measure." He also insisted that the policy is "consistent with the Catholic church's position."

Well meaning as he is though, the official Catholic Church's position couldn't be clearer. Equating all manner of contraception with abortion, any measure to provide these services has been met with resistance by the Catholic hierarchy in the last seven years at both the local and national level. The case would be different of course if Inton were referring to the "Catholic view" held by "most Filipino Catholics," (specifically women who prefer the pills as their method as reflected in the National Health Demographic surveys). Indeed, most Filipino Catholics just as most American, Brazilian or Mexican Catholics have more liberal views about family planning. Yet Inton's defensive posture is a familiar politician's stance in the Philippines. Even in the course of drafting bills before Congress on reproductive health policy, many representatives have often come up with similar suggestions of articulating a "disavowal" of abortion in the bill, even if the bill was never really meant to go as far as amending the penal law on abortion.

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Likewise, it is relatively well understood that a City can ever amend a national law anyway. The Quezon City initiative merely implements already existing legal mandates for local governments to provide family planning in the Local Government Code. But it seems that not all local chiefs are intimidated by the Catholic Church. South of the Philippines in Mindanao, another Mayor has taken up the cause of getting emergency contraception re-registered

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has been working for over a year now to secure the Emergency Contraceptive Pill (ECP) for the City's rape crisis centres. Also well known as one among the few cities in the country to first enact local legislation addressing Violence Against Women (VAW), (even before Congress passed the act) Davao City also has a very active Gender and Development Office that works with local women's organizations.

The big difference of course is that Duterte's efforts are not getting any support from the national agencies tasked with the re-registration of ECP. (And this is putting it politely.) Over four years ago, an Experts Committee created by the Department of Health (DOH) came out with a sixty-three page recommendation vouching for the safety and efficacy as well as the legality of ECP under Philippine laws and regulations. Yet on the heels of the corporate applicant's withdrawal of its application, the Secretary decided to forgo a final decision on the recommendation and set the case aside for lack of an interested applicant.

Unfazed, Mayor Duterte announced his intention to take action sans a corporate applicant and as local government chief, seek an application on behalf of the city in December 2006. Davao is one of few cities with funded rape crisis centres and hospital based women's protection units. ECP to prevent unwanted pregnancy in rape and sexual abuse situations is a common regimen alongside counselling, support services and forensic evidence gathering contexts. Working to suppress and delay ovulation, ECP taken within seventy two hours from unprotected sexual intercourse can prevent pregnancy. It saves many women, especially those in situations of rape and abuse, from further psychological trauma of an unwanted pregnancy.

The Mayor's position is perfectly legal and has basis in the decentralization policy that put health care delivery under the local government units. Procurement of essential medicines for the local government is also part of this mandate. However, it seems this Mayor is being given a run around. For over a year, his office has been waiting for what the BFAD refers to as a review being undertaken by a "technical committee" of obstetrician gynecologist specialists.

Unlike the 2002-2003 review which observed BFAD and DOH regulations on the conduct of a "public" hearing, (that is it was open to the public despite having been conducted usually late at night), this time, the members of the so-called committee were not even disclosed to the public.

The BFAD's curt and brief response does not even say what new issues are before it since the earlier recommendation by a panel of experts hired by the DOH to do the same thing was never over ruled anyway. Are these the same issues on safety, efficacy and legality? Why is the mechanism of action open for debate all over again? Has the past Panel of Experts been discredited? The BFAD doesn't say. It just tells the Mayor and his City to wait for the final outcome of this very "mysterious" review process.

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