Poverty, scarcity and the rule of the Catholic Church

Lila Ramos Shahani

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The RH bill is opposed mainly by those living in luxury and comfort, our bishops and legislators among them

In another attempt to maneuver the facts related to the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines recently observed that, among 215 congressmen surveyed, the number of pro-RH supporters in the Lower House was down to a mere 49 representatives.

This is the latest addition in a continuous series of tactics meant to dampen the ground swell of growing support for the RH bill. There are contrary reports however that say 143 representatives now support the bill, and that the numbers continue to increase.

For well over a decade, the Philippines has struggled to achieve what virtually all other Asian nations appear to have accomplished thus far: the enactment of an effective reproductive health law. The law’s main opponents in this case: certain sectors in the Catholic Church hierarchy, with contraception being a central source of contention.         

While the RH bill offers reliable contraception to those clamoring for a chance to regulate child birth, it also allows government to continue its long-term efforts to significantly improve the quality of life of women, particularly those who are poor.

Marcos to Arroyo years

One way of assessing the value of RH policies is to look not only at other countries in the region, but at past administrations too.

Certainly, there were significant gains in each administration: the Marcos years saw the creation of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women (now the Philippine Commission on Women). The Cory years, in comparison, strengthened legislation on the Family Code and the Philippine Development Plan for Women. With its Philippine Plan for Gender-Responsive Development, the Ramos years pushed women’s concerns even further. 

But what if one were to use a single matrix to measure the quality of life among women and examine its changes over time? The maternal mortality rate (MMR) – how many women die for every 100,000 live births – could be one such crucial marker, for instance.

During the Marcos years, the average MMR was 140; during the Cory administration, it improved significantly, dropping to 90 deaths, remaining at a similar level throughout the Ramos years. 

Regrettably, despite Estrada’s Philippine Agenda for Women Empowerment, the MMR rose to 100 during his time. The country further ranked 48th out of 194 on the United Nations (UN) Gender Inequality Index, indicating, among other things, that a significant number of women remained unaware of their basic rights. 

Arroyo’s impressive Framework Plan for Women – with goals of increased economic empowerment, protection and fulfillment of women’s human rights, and gender responsive governance – also did little to quell the worst numbers of any administration thus far: a staggering MMR of 230 deaths all told. 

Aquino administration

Today, that number has gone down but, at 221, remains no less disquieting. We still have one of the highest birth rates in Asia, the worst poverty situation in the entire Asean 4 region, and the dubious distinction of being the 12th most populous country in the world.

Alarmingly, the National Statistics Office projects that our population will be 103 million by 2015. We certainly lack the environmental resources to contain much more without facing worrisome levels of scarcity.

These issues have now become a matter of sheer human survival.

We currently face an array of new problems. At 37%, the deadly HIV virus is dangerously on the rise, and the UN continues to observe that the Philippines lacks the political will to confront it in a systematic manner.

According to the 2006 Family Planning Survey, among the poorest 10% of women of child-bearing age, 44% of the pregnancies are unwanted; 22% hope to avoid pregnancies but do not use family planning; and at least 41% do not use any contraceptives at all.

Evidence across Asia suggests that strong government policies on population and family planning are critical to sound economic and poverty reduction policies. And yet, the struggle to pass an RH bill has remained a source of bitter legislative contention in this country.

Typically, it is the poor who tend to suffer most. The National Demographic and Health Survey reports that women in the poorest 20%, unlike their wealthier counterparts, have the shortest birth intervals. Nevertheless, the RH bill is opposed mainly by those living in luxury and comfort, our bishops and legislators among them.

Similarities found in other policy pronouncements – the Magna Carta for Women, Presidential Decree No. 965 and the Department of Health’s Administrative Order No. 2008-0029 – are not enough to junk the bill altogether.

However, the sponsors of the bill remain open to amendments. But it is undeniable that, without the passage of this bill on reproductive health, there would be significant limitations to the type of health care services accessible to women and families as a whole.

Our constituents

Our concern should be for the poor, whose voices have remained unheard and whose interests remain unprotected even now. Indeed, they should be the key players in determining their own futures and contribution to society: families with the desired amount of children, properly spaced, are more in control of their own children’s upbringing and education.

Responsible parenthood, in the final analysis, should always be about informed choice. The stories of women and children – often raw, visceral and ultimately about grinding poverty – are echoed here throughout. The passing of this bill, then, offers us a critical opportunity to expand the choices of Filipinos in new and unprecedented ways. 

The time has come, and the time is now. – Rappler.com


Lila Ramos Shahani is Assistant Secretary and Head of Communications of the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet Cluster, which covers 20 government agencies dealing with poverty and development.


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