In the early morning of December 13th, 2012, the Philippines House of Representatives voted to pass the Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act of 2011 (commonly known as the RH bill), which will give millions of women access to contraception and other reproductive health services that were in many cases out of their reach. Despite widespread support for the move, and the fact that almost a third of Filipino women have an unmet need for contraception, the bill had languished in Congress for almost 15 years.
It was a victory for those of us in the Philippines who want to save lives and improve the well-being of families, an achievement that could not have come about without pro-health champions in Congress and the advocates who fought side-by-side for this bill with me and my colleagues for over a decade. I applaud the legislators who stood up to the bishops and for the will of the people, and the citizens—both Catholic and not Catholic—who refused to be intimidated by the hierarchy’s no-holds-barred campaign against the bill.
The Catholic hierarchy has a lot to answer for in the delay, as Rina Jimenez-David, a journalist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, explained in Conscience magazine in 2010. She described a call from two bishops asking the president to “slow down” on the RH Bill—one among many, many examples of the hierarchy’s aggressive lobbying. Whether it’s been a show of force in the House of Representatives or pointed sermons against reproductive health from the pulpit, the Catholic hierarchy has consistently pressured the faithful in the pews and in Congress to sink this legislation. For instance, Bishop Arturo Bastes of Romblon targeted House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman,alleging that the lawmaker was “excommunicating himself” with his support for the RH bill.
Just as consistently, however, opinion polls have shown a majority of citizens and Catholics in the Philippines support the government making contraception more available. And the facts have been on their side all along.
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We should remember that the result was also a defeat—for the bishops and their myopic point of view. Their perspective tries to override individual conscience and the rights of the women who have no access to contraception that would allow them to decide whether or when to have children—without which their health and lives may be at risk.
Indeed, the Family Health Survey shows a precipitous rise in the number of maternal deaths in the Philippines in recent years: from 162 per 100,000 live births in 2006 to 221 per 100,000 live births in 2011. A Los Angeles Times article described what life was like for Yolanda Naz, who lives with her husband and eight children in a shack. Contraception was impossible to afford after the local government of Manila, in collusion with the bishops, stopped offering family planning services at public clinics.
“For us, the banning of the pills was ugly,” Naz said. A recent New York Times article contained pictures of a maternity ward in Manila, two women to a bed, that were hard to look at. Yet those who were against the RH bill had the temerity to claim to speak for the poor.
The battle over the RH Bill was also fought among Catholic clergy. In a public disagreement between two Catholic clergymen, Bishop Gabriel Reyes of the Diocese of Antipolo took out a newspaper ad to refute a column in which Fr. Joaquin Bernas, a Jesuit and dean emeritus of the Ateneo de Manila Law School, portrayed family planning as a personal choice. Bernas disagreed with the bishop that contraception is readily available to the poor. “The exercise of freedom is only possible if one has the capacity to choose,” said the priest.
The bishops showed up in full force to the vote today, and no doubt they were focusing on the thoughts of the lawmakers before them, hoping that all their press statements and pressure tactics had sunk in. They may have, but they did not sway the 113 members who voted for the Bill. Pro-RH politicians like Rep. Kimi Cojuangco cited public health in voting “yes.”
“I’m a woman of means, then I lived with the poor and saw women suffering. I do this for the women,” she said. “I am a Catholic. The poor demand this national policy be adopted. I am mandated to listen to our people,” said Rep. Rodolfo Biazon after his vote today.
When you’ve pledged to cover up the truth, being forced into the light can be frightening, but I can assure the bishops of the Philippines: none of the doomsday scenarios you depicted will come to pass. In reality, the passage of the RH bill means that the Philippines will be much the same—except healthier and safer for women and their families.
While far from perfect, the Reproductive Health Bill addresses some of the health disparities—including maternal mortality— disproportionately affecting the poorest women, and may help check the rising HIV infection rate in a country where condoms are too expensive for many people. I heartily applaud those who voted in favor of its passage.
The Senate is due to vote on an RH measure as early as next week.