Commentary Abortion

On World Contraception Day, A Call to Pass the Responsible Parenthood Bill in the Philippines

Jessica Mack

Today is World Contraception Day. It’s actually a day just like any other, because it’s a day when so many women worldwide remain without access to birth control or other reproductive health services, and in which reproductive choice for all women remains an elusive goal.

Today is World Contraception Day. It’s actually a day just like any other, because it’s a day when so many women worldwide remain without access to birth control or other reproductive health services, and in which reproductive choice for all women remains an elusive goal.

Launched in 2007 by a coalition of global reproductive health partners, the mission of World Contraception Day is a world where every pregnancy is wanted. Hm. This is good, but I might suggest the following rewrite: a world where unwanted pregnancy hardly ever happens, because women have unfettered access to contraceptives.

I would then add this important follow-up, that when unwanted pregnancy does happen, which it inevitably will, women should have the choice and access to do something about it. Guess I shouldn’t be in the tag-line business, but this is definitely the world I want to live in.

As advocates, our emphasis shouldn’t be on making pregnancies wanted, but on making unwanted pregnancies nil. The latter places the burden on government, health systems, policymakers, and even parents, teachers, and insurance companies to ensure that individuals have the access to the tools they need. What they do with that information, that access, and those supplies is their choice.

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After a hectic week at the UN General Assembly, one world leader who really seems to get this is Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino III. Aquino spoke out passionately about the importance of personal choice when it comes to family planning. After taking office just over one year ago, the President has courageously thrown his weight behind the Philippines’ most famous Bill-that-never-was.

The Reproductive Health Bill was initially conceived in 1998, and would have granted universal access to contraception and comprehensive sex ed, in addition to a host of other wonderful reproductive health services. The Bill drew vociferous ire from the Catholic Church, and as a result has languished in Congress from more than 15 years. Numerous versions and rewrites have been proposed, but so far to no avail.

If passed, this bill would pave the way for profound changes in access to reproductive health services in the Philippines, in stark contrast to the current state of affairs for reproductive health. From 2000 to 2008, birth control was banned by executive order in the country’s largest metropolis, Manila. In 2008, an estimated 10.2 million women were at risk for unintended pregnancy. Abortion remains entirely restricted. Any way you slice it – human rights, public health, or food security – unmet need for reproductive health services and for family planning in the Philippines is great.

President Aquino – along with some tremendous policymakers – are taking this reality head-on, and despite escalating criticism from the Catholic Church, is daring to turn the Reproductive Health Bill legend into a reality. In an attempt to re-brand the issue of reproductive health, and pacify the Church, Aquino has recently renamed the bill the “Responsible Parenthood Bill.”

Aquino is trying to pacify the Church, though it hasn’t seemed to work.  The Philippines’ Catholic clergy have cruelly accused him of “selling out the Filipino soul,” and are unlikely to support any national measures to enable modern contraceptive access. Well, that’s too bad for them, because Aquino has remained an impressive stalwart in his support for family planning choices, and fearless in speaking about it often:

“Should I attempt to mimic an ostrich that buries the head in the sand, when I’ll be asked by God at some point in time, what did you do to the least of my brethren? I will be able to say that we stopped the condition where nobody seemed to care enough to educate them and empower them to effect their own decisions.”

Some of Aquino’s most vicious opponents have used the paradigms of imperialism and the human rights abuses of ‘population control’ to undermine his reproductive health efforts. These accusations are unfair and ill-informed, even if they have very real historic roots. In fact, Aqunio has spoken at length, and more eloquently than most other world leaders, about the importance of choice, not family size:

“I think the government is obligated to inform everybody of the responsibilities of their choices. At the end of the day, the government might provide assistance to those who are without means if they want to employ a particular method. But after saying that, I will not embark on a situation that forces couples to go one way or another.”

If the Responsible Parenthood Bill passes, it will be truly historic. It would have wide-reaching benefits for millions of Filipino families, for the rights of women, and for the futures of young people. The Bill is currently being debated in the Senate. Its passage would usher the Philippines into a new era, one in which the health of women, children and families becomes a priority, and where food security, economic security and environmental sustainability would be attainable goals.

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