[Dash of SAS] Love and sex advice from the Pope
I should be used to getting relationship advice from the Pope by now. I, after all, live in the Philippines, a Southeast island nation that is distant from Rome only in geography but is so much like the Vatican in every other way.
Many of my country’s laws are based on the love and sex advice dispensed by the Church. Like the Vatican, there is no divorce, adultery is a crime punishable with jail time (but only for women) abortion is illegal with absolutely no exception, and contraception is an unacceptable infraction to the natural ways of the Church.
The influence of the Church is felt from public offices to private bedrooms. So while the Pope’s apostolic exhortation, “Joy of Love” seemed to pull out the welcome mat for divorced Catholics and those in “irregular situations” and even listed in great detail how couples could have a happy married life, there was only little line that had me worried—the one line that reinforced the Church’s hardline stance on contraception.
It was one little line about the “State’s responsibility to equally protect the life of the mother and the unborn child” in the 1987 Philippine Constitution that launched a contraception battle that has lasted until today.
They say that the devil is in the details, and I knew enough to worry about how the Pope’s pronouncement could be used to justify restricting access to contraception and birth control even though a law mandates it.
It was a law that took about 15 years to pass and during those limbo years, teen pregnancy ballooned and HIV infection rates skyrocketed.
Where religion rules
Condoms were only available in drugstores over the counter necessitating the awkward conversation of ordering them and being heard by other customers. Pills, though loosely and barely reinforced, were required a prescription and the basic principle of sex education was “cross your legs”.
Access to birth control was sketchy and sporadic, vastly dependent on the priorities and personal beliefs of local mayors who either provided them or outlawed them in their cities. Condoms ads were pulled off the air because they were a matter of grave scandal.
Poor women who depended on free contraceptives to be provided by the government ran the risk of experiencing stock-outs because the local government didn’t allocate enough budget for contraceptives or worse, unavailable because a public official would declare his area of jurisdiction pro-life and outlaw the distribution of condoms.
Studies show that poor women were 3 times less likely to achieve their ideal family size compared to rich women.[AS2]
The passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law (RH Law) was supposed to be the equalizing force that religion never could be. It was supposed to give all Filipinos equal access to contraceptives so they could plan their family size.
The law did not endorse abortion, as many pro-life and religious groups insisted it did, but it looked at making birth control available as a way of reducing induced unsafe abortions by 500,000.
When you hold the RH Law up to today’s world issues of advocating for same sex unions, LGBT rights and access to safe abortion, there is nothing revolutionary or even very modern about the law. It simply served to institutionalize what should be a given: upholding every Filipino’s right to choose the size of their families through the provision of adequate RH information and services.
But in a country where Catholicism is oftentimes synonymous to a sense of nationalism, the law’s passage was a major victory for women’s rights groups. Public health experts welcomed it as a government policy that would help curb the country’s burgeoning population and exploding teenage pregnancy rate. These two factors are an annoying stumble to the country’s economic progress which has always stopped short of trickling down to the estimated 25% of population that are poor.
Now, close to 3 years after it had been passed, the full implementation of the RH Law continues to be stalled and sabotaged, rendering it practically inutile.
In a province in central Philippines, a mayor has banned contraceptives from public health clinics calling her city “pro-life”. Her supporters reportedly hold mini pro-life summits in the communities saying condoms and pills are sinful and against the will of God.
And the cruelest cut of them all was the $21-million budget cut for contraceptives believed to have been led by a senator notorious for this opposition to contraception because of his Catholic beliefs.
The sudden and unexpected budget cut has left the health department scrambling for funds to ensure contraceptive supplies beyond June 2016.
The violations have gotten so bad that the Commission of Human Rights (CHR) has launched a first ever national inquiry to look into violations of the RH Law.
Twyla Rubin, a lawyer at the CHR’s Gender Equality and Women’s Human Rights Center, cited preliminary findings that include the absence of pills and condoms in public health clinics and one pharmacy reportedly no longer stocking pills and condoms in its inventory.
And when it was quietly passed into law into 2012, it was a milestone. But its full implementation remains to be a dream.
It’s a sticky situation for the Philippines whose transition to an emerging economy and economic progress has meant shedding its reliance on foreign donors to provide its contraceptive supplies.
“What signal does it send to the international community when the Philippines does not want to fund a law that it has already?” asked Klaus Beck, executive director for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reacting to the budget cut.
Multiplying like rabbits
On his way back to Rome from his visit to the Philippines in January 2015, the Pope told a story about a woman with 7 children who was pregnant with her eighth.
He admonished her for being irresponsible and said that Catholics don’t need to multiply like rabbits. He called on Catholics to limit the number of children they have through natural contraception methods prescribed by the Church.
I once met a woman named Rosalie who had been pregnant 22 times and had 17 children. She had her first child when she was 16-years-old and had spent most of her adult life pregnant or giving birth.
Rosalie is quite famous in her shanty community of Tondo, the city’s biggest slum. Her neighbors usually had 5 or 6 children, some 10, but Rosalie was the runaway winner.
Rosalie and her husband only hoped for 3 children. But as a Catholic, she mostly heeded the Church’s sex advice and used to pray not to get pregnant. It was a little too late when she realized that birth control pills would have worked better. – Rappler.com
Ana P. Santos, Rappler's sex and gender columnist, is attending the Women Deliver 2016 conference in Copenhagen, Denmark as a media scholar. Women Deliver is the largest gathering of health experts and advocates working to advance the sexual reproductive health rights of women and girls.