The RH bill and hopes for a better life

Florencia Casanova-Dorotan
Filipinos must knock on the doors of their legislators to make sure the RH bill moves in both the House and the Senate

The author is an Undersecretary of the National Anti-Poverty Commission. Prior to her work in government, she was engaged in development work as community health worker-organizer and had seen the plight of women and parents who were not given an opportunity to intelligently choose how to effectively plan their families.

UNDERSECRETARY FLORENCIA DOROTANMANILA, Philippines – 10-year-old Elisa is the 5th in a brood of 9 children. She stopped schooling 3 years ago to care for her younger siblings as her parents are out the whole day to make money by scavenging. At times, especially when either of her parents was sick, Elisa had to scavenge as well to help augment the family’s needs despite the risks of bullying from other scavengers competing for scraps that can be sold for food.

A number of government interventions have been undertaken to help Elisa and her family but such assistance can only go so far. Apart from limited government resources, addressing the situation of Elisas’s family also requires a review of laws and policies that impinge on their situation, particularly the policy on reproductive health (RH).

But why RH? And what is its relevance in improving the situation of the likes of Elisa and her family and millions like her who live in poverty?

RH and poverty

RH legislation was proposed as early as 1998 during the 11th Congress but most of them got shelved at the committee level both in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The more advanced RH bills are House Bill No. 4244 and Senate Bill No. 2865 collectively called the RH bill which has reached the floor for deliberations.

Yet these bills seem headed for rejection as they touch on religious and cultural sensitivities.

Essential to a decent life for our people is reproductive health for women, thus ensuring their health and wellbeing – as women, as wives, as mothers and as citizens. For this reason RH must be mainstreamed through legal institutions.

In Metro Manila alone, Elisa is just one of the 1.7 million children who live in shanties sprawled across trash dumps, under bridges, even along cemeteries. If no sustainable intervention to uplift her and her family’s condition is undertaken, Elisa will grow up under-nourished both in food and in education.

She will definitely not be part of what former mayor and anti-RH Bill advocate Lito Atienza calls the “talented and so skilled and brilliant and bright population.”

Anti-RH advocates like Atienza argue that “when you have more people, you have a bigger labor force. You have a bigger social security base. You have more productivity. You have more consumption. More production. The whole cycle of the economy moves faster,” as Kenneth R. Weiss of the Los Angeles Times reported. 

But while the population quantity argument appears syllogistically sound, the reality is otherwise. As Elisa recalls, the can of sardines they shared when they were 7 in the family did not grow proportionately bigger now that they are 14 (including her nephews and sister-in-law), especially during ordinary times when her brother could not find work.

Second, the population quantity argument also fails to consider human beings as human beings and not emotionless producers of wealth. Anti-RH advocates like Siquijor Rep Orlando Fua, for instance, argued that implementing birth control “would kill the goose that lays the golden egg” as the population supplies the overseas workers who are major pillars of the Philippine economy.

Ironically, these are the Filipinos who make the headlines for being abused or killed abroad, or whose lives are at stake because of conflict situations in their host countries. Most OFWs are Filipinos who cannot fully experience the feeling of being in a family, the very institution which both the Constitution and the Church seek to protect.

Unless Elisa’s generation is also being prepared for doing lowly tedious jobs overseas, it may be a waste of time for RH bill advocacy. The bill calls for responsible parenting and lays down the environment to enable the members of its population to live as humans.

For critics, this means controlling the growth of the population which limits the number of individuals who can make money as OFWs. But assuming the bill is shelved again, will Elisa and her generation still survive to have a future, considering that, apart from being under-schooled, she has to compete with her siblings and nephews for food?

Cost of ignorance

A month ago, Elisa’s elder sister almost died giving birth. The baby, however, didn’t make it because of the mother’s ignorance about proper prenatal care.

But in addition to the cost of losing the baby, the liability in Elisa’s family increased because her sister could not help earn money due to the physical and psychological complications resulting from the baby’s death. These are the variables which are not considered in the population quantity argument.

This is alarming considering that for every two million live births, some 300,000 maternal complications occur annually according to the World Health Organization. On top of this, for every 1,000 babies born alive, 19 die. If life is valuable, then efforts to protect these mothers and babies should have been exerted – something which the RH bill seeks to address.

Critics, however, claim that implementing the family planning components of the RH Bill would increase spending from P1.9 billion to P4 billion – funds, they say, that can better be used in improving educational and health services especially for the poor. While this may be true, the question is: Who will be the beneficiaries of these educational and health services when maternal and infant mortality is high, and when a third of the remaining population is more concerned with seeking food than with feeding their brains?

Even a staff of the Department of Social Welfare and Development admits that compliance with the requirements of the conditional cash transfer program is not 100%. This is because a number of the beneficiaries would rather send their children to work for more income. This is preferred to enlisting in the CCT program and sending their children to school or sending mothers to health centers in exchange for an allowance from the government. 

On the other hand, critics fail to account for the savings that may be generated from the medical costs for unintended pregnancies which average P3.5 billion yearly, the medical costs for treating sexually transmitted diseases, the medical costs for treating cancer which could have been mitigated with proper education and/or early treatment, the costs of caring for special children arising from improper care of pregnant mothers, and, most of all, the lives that could be spared with proper education on reproductive health.

Back to the Dark Ages?

Ironically, given the benefits that could be derived from the RH bill, opposition still abounds. Some members of the Senate even vowed to block the bill at all costs, arguing that the bill espouses immorality and abortion.

Enacting the RH bill, according to those who oppose it, will make contraceptives easily available, thus supposedly encouraging risky and irresponsible sexual behavior especially among the youth.

On one hand, the argument simply criticizes the Church for failing to fulfill its obligation to develop the moral fabric of the nation. Because of this failure, the number of teenage pregnancies in the Philippines rose 70% – from  114,205 in 1999 to 195,662 in 2009 – according to the United Nations Population Fund Agency (UNPFA).

The same agency found that 11% of the 1.75 million live births in 2009 involved teenage mothers. Given these statistics, the state needs to use institutions to develop universally acceptable social standards. The RH bill can be one vehicle. This is because the bill espouses positive sexual education that will educate everyone, particularly teenagers, about responsible parenting.

The contraceptive mentality – the belief that contraceptives will encourage sexual activities – appears unfounded. Initial studies show that cases of rape and incest are high in areas that are highly conservative, and the incidence of STDs and unwanted pregnancies are also high in communities that lack sex education.

Another argument propounded by the opposition is that the RH bill allows the proliferation of contraceptives to be sold and accessed legally thus potentially contributing to the rise of abortion.

Again, the fear is unfounded because the RH bill recognizes and affirms the constitutional principle that bans abortion. Under the bill, contraceptives will be under the regulation of the Bureau of Food and Drugs. This is supposed to ensure effective and intelligent use.

On the other hand, if the status quo is maintained, contraceptives with abortifacents, including untested herbs with abortive effects openly sold in front of Quiapo Church, for instance, will continue to illegally proliferate, putting female users at risk.

This calls to mind the Dark Ages when thousands of lives were lost because of poor health and sanitation, and when scientific and empirical evidence was deemed heretical.

Tell your legislators

The Church has been preaching the importance of life. It should be consistent with this belief that Filipino couples are able to choose intelligently the reproductive health method that is right for them – be these the natural or artificial family planning methods.

Education in sexuality (and the effects of risky sexual behavior) should also be provided to individuals at a discerning age so they can be guided in their actions and become more responsible in their decisions. These opportunities can be made available once the RH bill becomes law.

The RH bill, however, will remain a legislative proposal if Congress does not act on it. Filipinos must knock on the doors of their congresspersons and senators so the bill moves in both the House and the Senate. –