Commentary Law and Policy

Why I’m Pro-Life, Whatever That Means: A Filipino’s Take on the New Reproductive Health Bill

Migs Bassig

There's a sticker, unpeeled, on my father's office desk. I don't know where it's from, but it's meant to demonstrate one's opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill now in Congress in the Philippines. "Say no," the sticker reads, a thick red diagonal line dashing across the glossy sheet of vinyl.

There’s a sticker, unpeeled, on my father’s office desk. I don’t know where it’s from, but it’s meant to demonstrate one’s opposition to the Reproductive Health Bill. “Say no,” the sticker reads, a thick red diagonal line dashing across the glossy sheet of vinyl. Maybe it was given out on a recent Sunday at the local parish; maybe it’s meant for the family car.

You might have been hearing a lot about this bill, first proposed more than a decade ago, in 1998, and which, if approved, will serve as a kind of national population policy, giving Filipinos — especially the poor — access to proper sex education, family planning devices and programs, and related free or low-cost social services through taxpayer support. There’s been plenty of debate and controversy about it, to be sure; as for why, well — you must keep in mind that majority of the 94-million-strong Philippine population is Catholic, and that any talk of things like contraceptives, birth control pills, vasectomies, and sex education is likely to be met with raised eyebrows. Here, divorce isn’t even legal. (We’re something of a standout in that regard, Malta having voted positively in a non-binding referendum on legalizing divorce.) So you can imagine the humorlessness with which the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) had, at one point, threatened to excommunicate President Aquino, if he should ever signify his support for the RH Bill.

As for why now, don’t ask me; true, this is the first time that legislation of this kind has won the support of the health committee in the Philippine Congress, although it seems to me that the whole affair has less to do with politics than with a kind of divine comedy. Of which I, too, have been thrown into being a part. “The problem with ‘pro-choice,'” tweeted my younger brother Josemaria (who is named after the founder of Opus Dei, and who until last month hadn’t yet graduated from college), “is functionalism.” Being a proponent of the bill, I replied that the problem with being anti-RH Bill, or “pro-life” as the opposition wishes to be called, is theism: after all, just before this particular exchange, the CBCP had spent close to a million pesos — possibly more — on the placement of anti-RH Bill advertorials in several national dailies. Josemaria sounded irritated. “Someone’s intent on building straw hats.” Then I wrote, not without disproportionate, hair-pulling fury, “Don’t be so cocky just because you’ll have a medal round your neck,” right before un-following him on Twitter and blocking him from my Facebook Wall. I told you it’s funny. But it’s the kind of comedy that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

And it’s the kind of bad taste that I felt as a kid whenever I heard someone utter the word “condom”. It sounded like a Bad Word, and I believed it was a Bad Word. “Condom” dirtied up sacred body parts like the penis and the vagina with bastard associations. As though the word itself was equivalent to sin — never mind using the thing. But like all young boys, I was drawn and tickled by the mystery surrounding this Badness, by the adult seriousness with which I’d been told, in hushed parental whispers, about the immorality of contraceptives. I remember one early summer morning at the local basketball playground when I stood by the entrance gate next to a garbage can, riveted by the sight of a crinkled, soggy latex chute, as gelatinous as a jellyfish and as clinical-looking as a test tube. Oh my, I thought. So that’s what it looks like. By then I was convinced that a world of truths was being kept from me. One such truth is this: there was no dead embryo in that garbage can.

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Murdered five-day old babies, the carcinogenic qualities of some oral contraceptives, the likelihood that condoms will promote promiscuity, the spread of AIDS, and abortion, the presumed evils of an increasingly secular society: these (and some) are being cited by the “pro-lifers” to present their case. But forget about the bill for a second; forget about statistics and theories on population economics; forget that there’s even a debate. With or without this political culture war, there would still be an unnecessary number of Filipino women and men living in shanties — in what a visiting American friend had described as put-together “scraps of tin and cardboard” — or sleeping at night with only the comfort of laid-out newspapers on pavement; in the daytime doing nothing but beg foreigners for “dollar, dollar” with babies pressed to their breasts to arouse sympathy; and they would still truly believe that they can afford to have four, five, six children and fornicate their way to raggedy defeat more than they can afford to go against what the church says about contraceptives. I know because I asked: there is a similarly striving woman somewhere in the streets of Malate, selling twenty-, fifty-peso second-hand books by Hemingway and Nietzsche (among others) — laconic brilliance and French existentialism spread out on sidewalk — and if you go ask her why she thinks condoms are bad, you’ll get the same answer.

There would also still be an unnecessary number of pregnant Filipino women jumping down the stairs, hoping to cause a miscarriage. Or they’re abusing fake or generic Cytotec (gastric ulcer drugs), bought from someone in an Internet forum named “Crizzy” or from the most questionable corners of the Quiapo blackmarket — without, needless to say, prescriptions. Or, if the goal is to prevent instead of end pregnancy, they’re drinking herbal potions from who knows where, containing who knows what. These are the options: thudding on stair treads, anguished online pleas, ripened cervices, uterine ruptures.

There would still be the case from two months ago at Universidad de Manila, in which a political science freshman took a .38 revolver to class and shot his pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend in the head after a disagreement on what to do with the baby. He shot himself shortly afterward. They are as dead as dead, as lifeless as a statistic, but I would not believe anyone who tells me that age-appropriate sex education, birth control, or emergency obstetric care could not have done something — anything — to keep those teenagers alive.

And there would still be, for both men and women, the very horrible anxiety from which suffers anyone waiting for the results of an HIV test. If you have never had to do that, take my word for it: it’s not fun. It’s crippling. No amount of Xanax will soften the blow of hearing the word “positive”; neither will forgiveness from God soothe the guilty conscience of a bare-backer waiting, wanting, hoping, praying to hear the word “negative”. I have heard terrible stories from friends with the virus — stories of disease, stories of death — but if there is anything I might be able to observe from the way these have been told, it’s the resolution to be smarter sexual beings, and the joyous persistence of life.

So forgive me for disagreeing with people who accuse me — and other proponents of the bill — of “functionalism;” with generations of clergy and conservatives who deny Filipinos the freedom to question and reject the Badness of contraceptives; with members of the opposition who call themselves “pro-life.” Forgive me for disagreeing with the term with which they have labeled themselves. Being “pro-life” necessitates an experience, an understanding, of the struggles of humanity, and it requires the acceptance that, frankly, humanity sometimes works to disengage us from our youthful innocence. We do not become advocates of murder for believing there are no dead embryos in the aftermath of protected sex.

“You wonder whether you should laugh or cry,” an observant Swiss friend wrote on the matter of this bill. I ought to have told him that the matter calls for neither; it calls instead for more disagreeing. And I’ll do just that, vehemently so, should anyone peel off the sticker on my father’s desk and paste it where I can see. I’m pro-life, I’ll say. And I’d mean nothing funny by it at all.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Let’s Stop Conflating Self-Care and Actual Care

Katie Klabusich

It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.

As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.

I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.

International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.

“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”

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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.

The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.

The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.

“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”

The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.

Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”

Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:

Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.

It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.

We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.

I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.

Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.

Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.

Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.

My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.

It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.

Over the past year I’ve noticed a spike in articles on how much of the emotional labor burden women carry—at the Toast, the Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, and the Huffington Post. This category of labor disproportionately affects women of color. As Minaa B described at the Huffington Post last month:

I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.

The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

While her words ring true for me, they are certainly more weighted and applicable for those who don’t share my white and cisgender privilege. As covered at Ravishly, the Feminist Wire, Blavity, the Root, and the Crunk Feminist Collective recently, self-care for Black women will always have different expressions and roots than for white women.

But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.