Why Is Reproductive Health Still “Controversial” in the Philippines?

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Commentary Abortion

Why Is Reproductive Health Still “Controversial” in the Philippines?

Carolina Austria

When Filipino media make reference to the "Catholic" position on family planning and contraception, it usually quotes the opinion of the Catholic hierarchy, disregarding the varied views among Catholics.

The pending bill on reproductive health care in the Philippines is often deemed controversial simply because some outspoken members of the powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy consider it so. To the conservative Catholic hierarchy, the most controversial portion of the bill has to do with contraception (which it equates with abortion) and sex education.

However, a recent survey indicates that the majority of Filipinos (a lot of them Roman Catholics) do not seem to think family planning is controversial. Over fifty-two percent of a representative sample agreed that modern family planning methods should be included in public health care and sixty-eight percent of respondents agreed that family planning services should be provided for by law. Over fifty-four percent even support sex education in schools. 

But how did an otherwise banal piece of legislation, which simply provides standards, infrastructure and a budget for public health care services ever become so divisive? Given the differences that do exist among faiths (and those who are non-believing) on the issues of contraception, abortion and sex education, is a consensus about the role of government possible? 

One attempt to shed some light on how these issues are framed, discussed and debated in the public was conducted by the Ateneo School of Government (ASG). It studied how the media frames population issues and reproductive health, and found that some of the most dominant frames used by the media in the last four years include the themes of “population control,” “contraception” and “abortion.” 

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Despite the clear references by advocates to “rights,” “health” and “women’s reproductive choice,” these frames were rarely picked up and did not prominently feature in the media. The researchers cited the few in media who did utilize these frames and acknowledged Rina Jimenez David as one of the most consistent.  

Dr. Antonio G.M. La Viña, ASG Director and Dr. Clarissa David, Professor at the UP College of Mass Communication, who led the study, said the ASG study can help facilitate a genuine discussion of the issues around rights, reproductive health and even the Catholic faith. By recognizing the role that media plays in framing the issues being debated, the study also presents a challenge to both sides in the debate, who after all, influence the media through their positions and statements. 

On one hand, they noted how advocates on either side of the debate often tend to “talk past” each other, rarely meeting head on what the other side is saying about a certain issue. Dr. La Viña observed that this indicates that those engaging in the debate do not really listen to what the other side is saying. 

Dr. La Viña’s observation in fact rings true when one considers how many of those who are opposed to the idea of reproductive health as rights still refuse to acknowledge that “population control agendas” and the idea of demographic targets have always been challenged and resisted by human rights advocates, not the least of them, women’s rights groups. The same observation can be made about some RH advocates who at times have will invoke the separation of church and state, interpreting secularism to mean the exclusion of religion in the policy debate. 

In the past, whenever media made a reference to the “Catholic” position on RH including family planning and contraception, it usually resorted to quoting the opinion of the Catholic hierarchy based on teaching against contraception in the Humanae Vitae, disregarding the differences of views among Catholics. Many in the local media highlight the “sensational,” fanning the fires of controversy by zooming in on the clash between outspoken Bishops and the bill’s proponents in Congress.  

In the past few years, however, Filipino Roman Catholics have also begun speaking out about their different views on reproductive rights. Most recently, a group of Professors from the Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit founded Roman Catholic university came out in support of the bill on reproductive health. Using no less than Roman Catholic social teaching as a basis for their position, the group of prominent academics included theologians, philosophers, doctors and social scientists.  

Apart from being acrimonious, the debates on RH (and all matters relating to sexuality in public policy) have often seemed futile, with no possible compromise in sight. But the ASG study gives us important insight on how the debate on the right to reproductive health is severely limited when the “frames” used by media (and advocates on either side) end up formulaic. Instead of a lively public discussion, which engages the issues where they are most felt, participated in by those affected, “media exchanges” that have become the exclusive domain of high-profile Bishops, experts and lawmakers, seemingly lead us nowhere near possible compromises. The examples by groups like Catholics for RH and the ADMU faculty, however, show us a different development and imparts important lessons: while differences need not be settled with finality, what remains important is openness. Having the conviction to take a stand does not lie solely in stating that position but by bravely (and sincerely) listening to others different from your own.