Women’s health in the Philippines is in crisis. A report from the Guttmacher Institute finds that 54 percent of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended. Helping women delay or avoid pregnancy would reduce abortions and miscarriages—by 500,000 and 200,000, respectively—and would save the lives of 2,100 women.
The Philippines government, which is not ignorant of this state of affairs, has declared this month Natural Family Planning Month. Its message to Filipinos is conservative and confusing. On the one hand, the government embraces the idea that family planning is an essential part of national health:
Responsible Parenthood means that each family has the right and duty to determine the desired number of children they might have and when they might have them. . . . Informed Choice is upholding and ensuring the rights of couples to determine the number and spacing of their children according to their life’s aspirations and reminding couples that planning size of their families have a direct bearing on the quality of their children’s and their own lives.
On the other hand, the Philippines is a country in which church and state are bedfellows. One of the components of the family planning program is Respect for Life:
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Respect for Life brings to mind that the 1987 Constitution provides that the government protects the sanctity of life. Abortion is not a family planning method.
It is a method, in fact, for 17 percent of Filipino women who become pregnant, according to the Guttmacher study. That’s over a half a million illegal abortions a year.
These findings, unfortunately, are not surprising. A place where sexual health is hindered by stigma and poverty, the Philippines has long been a hotbed for HIV infection. When a government is in the grips of the Catholic Church, its response to a national epidemic, and to a deplorable level of family health, is understandably conflicted. Hence, the government’s press release champions “Informed Choice” but makes no mention of barrier methods or hormonal contraception. They endorse methods that track ovulation, like the Billings Ovulation Method and the Standard Day Method.
The Guttmacher report classes Natural Family Planning among modern contraceptives, though it finds that only one percent of women who want to delay or avoid pregnancy use NFP. 48 percent of women who don’t want to get pregnant use a barrier or hormonal method, or sterilization. 22 percent use a “traditional” method, like withdrawal or periodic (though not ovulation-based) abstinence, and 29 percent of women who wish to avoid pregnancy use no method at all.
What does all this mean? The Philippines government is championing a form of family planning used by only one percent of women interested in planning their families. It’s a method, furthermore, that results in pregnancy one in six times.
More importantly, only 49 percent of women who don’t want to get pregnant are using any kind of contraception. The Guttmacher report does a good job of breaking down contraceptive need and availability by region and income level. Suffice it to say that through a mix of government opposition and lack of resources, the need in the Philippines is unmet. USAID, which used to supply the bulk of contraceptives to the Philippines, began phasing out contraceptive funding in 2006.
The Philippines needs help from international organizations, but it also needs to listen to what its women are saying. The government should not be solely advocating a form of birth control that is as little-used and ineffective as Natural Family Planning. The government’s flirtation with choice is enticing, but its confusion about it is maddening. Its mixed message to women and families is epitomized in statements like this one:
Birth Spacing. . . enables women to recover their health improves women’s potential to be more productive and to realize their personal aspirations and allows more time to care for children and spouse/husband.
Pregnant women are less able to wait on their husbands! The government is inching toward choice, but its frame of reference may need to be shattered first.