What Filipino Catholics Say About Abortion

Carolina Austria

As hard as it has become in the US context to explore common ground in the abortion debate, in places like the Philippines, even mustering a public discussion about contraception has become increasingly difficult in recent years.

When President
Barack Obama made his now-famous speech
before the graduating class of Notre Dame University
, everybody noticed the
group of Pro-Life Catholics who opted to boycott the historic address. Without avoiding
the controversy, President Obama went into the heart of the matter. He talked
about abortion, but instead of defending one position and criticizing another,
he spoke about what he felt has gone wrong with the way advocates on either
side of the fence have been conducting the debate. 

In the pre-framed
"Pro-Choice/Pro-Life" debate, each side has the tendency to portray the other
as morally wrong and this often leaves
little room for any presumption of good faith
. When this happens, the
discussion fails and the debate comes to a grinding halt. All we are left with
is empty, vitriolic rhetoric and few visions of moving forward. 

As difficult as it
has become in the US context
to manage discussions exploring common ground in the abortion debate, in other
places like the Philippines,
even mustering a public discussion about contraception has become increasingly
difficult in recent years. 

To be clear, it’s
really not because Filipino Catholics (around 80 percent of the population) are
different from the majority of Catholics in other countries worldwide. Countless public polls each year confirm that Filipino Catholics share similar views: Filipino
Catholics, for example, respect contraceptive choice as a matter of conscience.

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But abortion is
a whole other issue. The number of clandestine abortions in the Philippines
is over 373,000 annually, despite the age-old penal prohibition. 

Until recently,
even advocates for women’s health usually steered clear of the topic of
religion when it came to conducting discussions about abortion, and stuck to
public health frameworks. This strategy has proven effective in clearing up misconceptions
about contraception, abortion and women’s health in general. It also provides
an ideal frame for articulating state mandates around health services, but it
does avoid many issues that women face. 

Recognizing the
conservative position of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy on most issues
about women’s rights and not just abortion makes "opting out" of the discussion
about Catholic faith easier.  Sr. Helen Graham, a theology professor and human
rights advocate since the martial law period in the Philippines, assured RH
advocates the feeling of "hanging by a thread" when it comes to being Catholic
and supporting social change is something with which she is familiar. 

Sr. Helen spoke
before RH advocates including health providers and organizers from the rural
and urban poor sectors in a conference organized by Linangan ng Kababaihan (LIKHAAN) and noted that it’s not just the
Church hierarchy’s conservatism that makes things difficult, but there is also
the danger of talking out of turn when it comes to challenging religion.  She
called on advocates engaging the issue of religion to study the history of the
Catholic Church and be open to the complexity of Catholic thought. Citing the
work of feminist theologians like Rosemary Rathford Ruther and Margaret Farley,
Sr. Helen pointed out that despite the seeming contradiction, Catholic thought
(particularly reforms introduced during the Second Vatican Council) can also
provide a means to articulate issues in sexual ethics. 

Professor Mary
Racelis from the Jesuit-run Ateneo de
Manila led a public statement in support of reproductive health legislation,
and welcomed the voices of poor women in the discussion.  She lamented how the
most vociferous among those opposed to RH legislation always turn out to be the
upper class women of the Catholic Women’s League (CWL) and the (presumably)
celibate men of the cloth.  She pointed out the irony in the situation when rich
women and celibate men monopolize the discussion about women’s sexuality and
reproductive health. 

Poor women and
their families who have the most to lose when there is no reproductive health
care, have yet to be heard.  Prof. Racelis recalled how aghast she was when a
priest carelessly made a categorical statement during mass contrary to Catholic
teaching, calling "contraceptive use" as a "mortal sin," instead of it being a
matter of conscience.  After mass, she made sure to have a conversation with him
about the matter.  He turned out to be one of her former students and she thinks
perhaps this was why he listened to her. 

In the end, both
Prof. Racelis and Sr. Helen agreed that having been the teachers of those who
later became priests, the need for more education, reflection and open
mindedness about Catholicism is definitely not just for lay people and RH
advocates.  The Catholic clergy definitely needs huge doses of it.

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