Rafael M. Salas: 'Mr Population' who started it all

MANILA, Philippines - The world’s first-ever population program was created by a Filipino.

While the debate over the Reproductive Health (RH) bill has taken on different slants, narrowed down to sex, contraception, and abortion, many Filipinos today are unaware that a fellow Filipino started it all in the international arena.

Rafael M. Salas began a population management program that did not even mention sex, contraception, or abortion, but provided a broad perspective of people and development, and urged countries to adopt a population policy that centers on people and quality of life regardless of faiths and beliefs.

He continuously called for urgent government action among countries. “A population policy is a long-range strategic weapon,” he said in one of his messages in 1980. ”Its effects are felt not immediately but a generation hence. To be effective, it must be launched now.”

Salas headed the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), now known as the UN Population Fund with the same acronym, as its executive director from the time he established the organization in 1969 until his death on March 4, 1987 at age 59, when he was already a UN Undersecretary-General.

He was best remembered for his trailblazing work, earning him the title “Mr. Population” from the international community.  

In a memorial book, one of the Filipinos who expressed admiration for Salas was Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile who is now plays a central role on the fate of the RH bill.

During the 1986 People Power Revolution, Enrile called Salas by phone in New York and entrusted his family to him should the uprising against Marcos fail and if anything could happen to him. Enrile and Salas were 1953 UP Law classmates and Sigma Rho Fraternity brothers.

In his message about Salas, Enrile said: “He was, indeed, a true Filipino. He had the depth and the brilliance to transform his country and his people. He is the best president of this country; the best president we never had and will never have.”

'Angry Salas'

Today’s leading experts on population management profess to Salas’ judiciousness, but express sadness over the polarization of the once-encompassing program that he created and defined more than 40 years ago.

Cecile Joaquin-Yasay, former executive director of the Commission on Population (Popcom) who worked with Salas in the UNFPA, said Salas “defined the holistic program for the whole world” that was accepted in all countries that profess to Christianity and Islam; even the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. “It was never only about family planning, abortion or contraception from the very beginning.”

“It was bigger than that because it encompassed health, gender equity, sexuality, and education -- concepts that are needed by every country in the world,” she said. “He created the program and nobody told him what to do. It was never dictated to him – not even the so-called West or the First World.”

National Scientist Dr Mercedes Concepcion, the internationally known Filipino demographer and a noted expert who pioneered research on Philippine and Southeast Asian demography, said that if Salas were alive today, he would be angered at the tack of the RH bill discussions. “He would have been disgusted by the noise with no substance,” she said. “He would have rushed to the politicians and religious people to tell them that abortions are ongoing as they speak and grandstand, yet they don’t do anything.”

She said the one-track discussions lack the understanding of the situation of women who consider abortion “as a last resort because they no longer wished to be pregnant.” It is frustrating that “no matter how many times you repeat that,” she said, “the baggage of abortion looms every time the population issue is raised.”

A 2010 study by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights reported that every year, 560,000 Filipino women turn to abortion; 90,000 of them suffer from complications, and 1,000 die from crude and extremely painful methods. These include intense abdominal massages by traditional midwives, the insertion of catheters into the uterus, medically unsupervised consumption of Cytotec, the local brand of a drug that induces uterine contractions, and ingesting concoctions sold by street vendors.

The report said: “Women seek abortion that is driven underground, making it extremely unsafe and potentially deadly. Thousands of women resort to abortion to protect their health, families, and livelihood. Yet, the government sits idly by refusing to tackle the issue or reform the policies that exacerbate it.”

Stirling Scruggs, an American colleague of Salas who served as UNFPA country director in the Philippines and who was with Salas on the day he died of a heart attack in Washington, DC, said “women get pregnant but don’t know how not to.”

In his years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Isabela province, one image he could not forget was those of women who came in droves to beg visiting medical workers to have intrauterine devices inserted into them to prevent more pregnancies.

“Having a baby is wonderful but it also poses the most dangerous threat to a woman’s life,” said Scruggs.“Go to a barrio and you will see the situation,” he said of women who do not have options to plan their pregnancies and who die giving birth to the nth child.

Why use the Bible?

The intimidation brought by religion was not even an issue then, said Scruggs, who recalled that Catholic priests would ask him to visit the barrios more frequently so that couples would be educated on planning their families.

“I never quite understood why people use religion, even the Bible, in forwarding their argument against the well being of a family,” he said. “Jesus would have wanted to give women their options.”

Due to poor health education, infant deaths are also a reality in poor areas in the country, said Scruggs. He recalled the barrio scenes of groups of people carrying small coffins in processions to the church and cemetery almost every week.

Yasay, who is currently involved in a project providing education to children in poor urban areas, said the one image that stuck was that of a woman who rejoiced upon hearing that her husband died. “I’ll never forget a woman in Baseco, Tondo, Manila who, strangely, was so happy when her husband died,” she said. “She told me that at long last, she would no longer get pregnant.”

Concepcion said scenes of poverty, lack of options, and misinformation are played over and over as the years passed, but the population program espoused by Rafael Salas was nowhere in sight.

The UN said one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a set of time-bound international goals by 2015 which the Philippines is committed to, is the reduction of deaths among women due to pregnancy complications -- from 162 per 100,000 live births in 2006 to 52 per 100,000 live births in 2015. The Philippines is unlikely to meet this commitment. There is also no change in deaths among newborns, and this threatens the country’s achievement of the MDG goal on child mortality.

Salas has said that the population question is the mother of all development questions that engage aspects of gender relations, ecological management, demographic patterns, cultural systems, political organization, religious beliefs, and economic performance.

He said, “The question of poverty, its eradication, and the allied questions of development and population are in the end questions of morality. We should not become so closely involved in consideration of the morality of specific means of family planning that we lose sight of the wider issue, which is not less than the physical, mental and moral well-being of mankind. The totality of the relationship between population and development is a concern I believe all Catholics and Christians can share.”

Standing tall

He asked countries to go beyond numbers. “Interest in population is not a concern with the figures on a chart or the curves of a graph alone, however important they may be, but is essentially an involvement with the future of humanity itself.”

According to Ben de Leon, president of The Forum for Family Planning and Development, past Popcom executive director and chief executive officer of the ASEAN Population Coordination Unit in the 1980s based in Jakarta, Indonesia, Salas stood tall in the eyes of the community of nations, and that he was the best administrator of his generation.

“He was greatly respected and highly admired by presidents and prime ministers of governments across the globe as well as religious leaders including the Vatican for his views on the interrelationship of population and development.” Salas put people as the center of development, he said. “To him, no amount of development will succeed unless population is linked to it.”

Salas developed the UNFPA office in Manhattan, New York, from a small staff of 5 people and a budget of US$2.5 million into one of the most stable UN agencies and the world’s largest multilateral provider of population assistance, reaching a budget of $142 million in 1985, long-term commitments of $1.4 billion, and funding for 4,800 projects in 149 countries and territories.

Born in Bago, Negros Occidental on August 7, 1928, Rafael Montinola Salas graduated with high honors from the UP in 1950, completing his B.A. (magna cum laude) and LL.B (cum laude) in 1953. He obtained his Master in Public Administration from Harvard University in 1955. Upon graduation, he returned to UP where he occupied a variety of academic positions until 1966. He was married to Carmelita Rodriguez of Cebu City, who was Philippine Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, with whom he has two sons, Ernest and Raffy.

His exposure to the nuances of Philippine politics started as a youth campaign strategist for Ramon Magsaysay. During his tenure as Marcos’ executive secretary, Salas was able to solve the country’s annual rice production problem as action officer of the National Rice Sufficiency Program that in 1968, for the first time in history, the Philippines had a rice surplus.

The 'Salas boys'

Assisting him were talented young people whom he inspired and recruited for public service and in the United Nations. They were known collectively as the “Salas Boys:” Leo Quisumbing, Jerry Flores, Victor Ramos, Fulgencio Factoran, Bibit Duavit, Horacio Morales, Frankie Llaguno, Ed Soliman, Jun Aguirre, Mat Defensor, Boni Alentajan, Joe Molano, Doming Cepeda, Jimmy Yambao, Hiro Ando, Lino Ilyera, Ben de Leon, Edcel Lagman, Violeta Drilon, Pearl Tano, Ruben Torres and Bukan Yulo.

Former president Fidel V. Ramos, a foremost advocate of the RH bill and of population quality and Salas’ UP high school classmate, once said, “the Salas Boys were the best and the brightest.”

From 1962 to 1969, Salas was a member of various Philippines delegations to international conferences and the UN General Assembly. He headed the Philippines delegation to and was vice-president of the International Conference on Human Rights, held in Teheran in 1968 where he said, "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children," the first-ever declaration of such magnitude about family planning.

Salas died on March 4, 1987 in Washington, DC from an apparent heart attack. Stirling Scruggs was with him when he died.

In his honor, the UNFPA has established the Rafael M. Salas Memorial Lecture series held annually at the UN Headquarters in New York that provides a forum to discuss population and development. Speakers have included former World Bank president Robert McNamara; former Norway prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and ecologist-filmaker Jacques Cousteau.

The POPCOM established the biennial Rafael M. Salas Foundation in 1990 and the Rafael M. Salas Population and Development Award that honors individuals, institutions and local government units for their outstanding contributions to population and development. - Rappler.com