Spiritually pro-RH

Sylvia Estrada Claudio

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Humility demands that we know the limits of personal experiences and beliefs. And it is cruel to use the death and suffering of people to argue for your political cause.

Sylvia ClaudioThe struggle for and RH law has been long and difficult. A large part of the difficulty has been the opposition by one of the most powerful social institutions in our society: the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

When my organization, Likhaan, began advocating for an RH law, I had not thought that we were challenging the Church. Likhaan’s core program is community organizing for health service delivery that addresses the needs of women and youth as well as men. 

We were dragged into legislative advocacy when we met so many barriers to our work and massive violations of women’s health rights. The ban by former Mayor Lito Atienza of reproductive health services in Manila is just one glaring example. That ban is still under investigation by international human rights agencies.

I was reluctant to engage in legislative advocacy because I found the population emphasis of earlier bills troubling. I began my involvement in reproductive rights as a critic of Marcos’ population control program. I was also one of the many women who worked internationally to ban dangerous contraceptive technologies. This included the high dose oral contraceptive formulations that are no longer on the market. It is these contraceptives that are often referred to when those opposed to the RH law cite studies on cancerous and other bad side effects.

As one of the many women who worked on the Program of Action adopted by the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994, I helped ensure that the concern with population growth would not become a rationale for population control. The ICPD also calls for the protection of women from unsafe contraceptive technologies. The ICPD remains the international standard for reproductive health and rights. Like the RH Law, many who criticize this document seem not to have read it.

Enemy of the Church

All of this is merely a backdrop for the very small part of my experience that I have managed to process since the RH bill has become the RH law. That is the idea that I have become an enemy of the Catholic Church because of my advocacy.

I had no idea that the differences with the hierarchy of the Philippine Catholic Church would get so fraught. The angry men (mostly) who continue to tweet and message me seem to know that I am agnostic and see in this an explanation of my alleged hatred of the Church.

Truth is, I had no idea what Catholicism is really like in Philippine society until the struggle for the RH law. Having been raised in an agnostic household, I was taught to respect all faiths and non-faiths. I realized the horrible history of the religious orders in the Philippines upon reading about the Philippine Revolution of 1896, but had no thought that these abuses were anything but matters of the past.

In short, I have no deep-seated angst against the Catholic Church.

However, like many others I have cause to be angry because of way the CBCP and some anti-RH advocates behaved. But my agnostic spirituality (yes Virginia, there is such a thing) keeps me from holding on to my anger. Thus, though I have the distinction of being called an “abortionist whore” in some anti-RH websites and being named by Sen. Sotto as an advocate for abortion in one of his speeches in the Senate, I remind myself that not everyone in the anti-RH camp resorts to name calling.

Some of the Catholics I work with are angrier at their Church. Some of them have left and are calling for the end of its influence. I suppose they are more emotional because they are hurt and disappointed. Others however, are angry for experiences I don’t have—such as sexual abuse from the Catholic clergy.

The science that underpins the RH law is solid. Indeed, the representative for the Agham party, in explaining his “yes” vote, said he was voting for the side that had won the scientific argument. I have often urged my fellow advocates, however, to make both scientific and moral arguments.

So here, I present, 5 spiritual differences between me and anti-RH advocates.

1) It’s immoral to deny scientific knowledge.

As someone who has doctorate degrees in both social science and natural science, I am aware of the limits of science. But the denial of scientific knowledge is unacceptable.

Understanding the compatibility of science and spirituality is one of those endeavors I would like to have another lifetime to undertake.

However, I will make only two arguments. First, science tells us much about what Catholics and other religious call “creation.” It tells us the nature of that creation and how that creation works.

If creation is, as the Catholics claim, a manifestation of and by God, then we have to study it with full acceptance and deep reverence. That is also what the best scientists do regardless of whether they profess a faith or not. Many find that accepting scientific data is not incompatible with faith.

Thus, it shocked me when during one of the debates on a TV show, a medical doctor who confronted with scientific data that contraceptives don’t prevent implantation of the fertilized ovum, said that she would set aside any scientific study if it meant contravening the principles of the Church. It shocked me that she and I could be so profoundly different in how we approach medical practice and spirituality.

However, the second argument that I make for science is that it teaches me to value my profound spiritual differences with that anti-RH doctor. Nature emphasizes to us the value of diversity—in forms, in mechanisms, in interactions. It is diversity that underlies the stupendous beauty of creation.

This is why I don’t treat an anti-RH individual as a known entity until I get to know them better.

2) Humility demands that we know the limits of personal experiences and beliefs.

At one time during the advocacy for the passage of the RH bill an observation/joke was going around among those of us who are medical doctors. “Why”, asked the joke, “does getting pregnant while on the pill happen to less than one percent of ordinary human beings while it happens to 100% of the celebrity wives of celebrity politicians?”

A long time ago, I was extremely relieved when one of my children decided against accepting a contract to work with one of the major TV networks. As a psychologist I was already bracing to give the support he would need to prevent the damage that comes from excessive attention.

So when Rep. Lani Mercado Revilla began her explanation of her “no” vote on the RH bill by citing her bad experiences with the pill, I tweeted, “with celebrities it is always about them.” My analysis was strengthened when Rep Lucy Torres made similar arguments based on her personal experience and her demand that her particular view on when life begins should be the view of everyone. (This latter argument, that all of us should believe as she believes, also falls under the category of religious authoritarianism which I discuss below.)

Under the reasoning of “it was bad for me therefore it must be bad for everyone else,” I should then ask that a bill banning Lamaze birthing be filed. I tried this for all my 3 pregnancies and it failed for me.

People have also argued that what is good for them must be good for everyone else. This argument was repeated by more representatives then I care to remember. (Politicians suffer from similar ego problems as celebrities.) The most common argument that falls under this category is the one that says, “my parents never practiced family planning and I am fine/wonderful/successful.

Apart from the lack of insight in that claim (many Filipinos think very poorly of politicians), they fail to see that many children born to big families die early or that many families are motherless because of the high rates of maternal mortality associated with ill-timed and numerous births.

Without claiming any wonderfulness, I am grateful to have been born. Nonetheless my deep joy in existing does not allow me to make the self-centered proposal that it is good for all women to have as many children as possible so that more people can be as joyfully alive.

My last point for this section, is an added one about the spiritual benefits of listening to science. As I replied to one young woman who kept debating me about how she would not use oral contraceptives because she believed them to be dangerous, “your choice works for you. It should be everyone else’s? Science tames our egos and tells us what is generalizable.”

Despite what this young woman, Lani and Lucy believe, oral contraceptives have been shown to be so safe that the American Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends they be sold without a prescription.

3) Moral differences are not a reason to bully anyone.

During certain periods, I would get tweets castigating me about something I wrote or did to help pass the RH bill.

Often these people were angry about something I did not say such as “the unborn is not a child”. I understand from the person who tweeted this that it is what some other RH advocate said. I know I would not have said this because I do not use the term “unborn” often. I prefer the terms, fertilized ovum, zygote, embryo or fetus.

In any case the tweets are quite hostile if not outright libelous. (Don’t worry sirs, I won’t sue under the reprehensible cybercrime law. I am spiritual that way.)

Further exchanges lead to accusations that I am attacking the Church/Jesus/God and that they will defend the Church/Jesus/God at all costs.

I am reminded of the schoolyard bully who used to watch nerds like me walk across his domain. Stay away from him and he would say, “why, you think I stink that you walk so far from me?” Walk a little closer and he will say, “give me a little space here.” In other words, he just wanted to to pick on me, period. Being so much bigger than me, he never needed to say what he would say to others less powerful, “be careful, my grandma is the school principal.”

From the tweets of these men, I noticed that like the schoolyard bully, they monitor my movements—that is, my FB status, tweets and organizational affiliations. I should add that I don’t start these debates, I just feel compelled to answer when they tag me.

Unlike the nemesis of my childhood however, these defenders of Jesus have the advantage of claiming the much bigger turf of Philippine society and not just a schoolyard. They also have Jesus or God or the Church as bigger backers than their grandma. Lastly, they can pick a fight with me not just for anything that I did, but what other RH advocates have done as well. That makes me and a lot of people who disagree with them easy pickings for a fight. My old nemesis would be green with envy.

A variant of this is, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus whom I love even more than my earthly father. How would you feel if I insulted your father?” This frightens me. I have sometimes dealt with people who invoked the superior social position of their father when they disagreed with me. But I don’t quite know how I might approach Jesus and convince him to control his sons. Is he like other fathers who can sometimes be unreasonable? What about his being a father is similar or dissimilar to a biological father? Is it ok for me to ask why such a powerful father would need defending from a UP teacher or is that also offensive to his sons and Him?

Unlike the bully, I certainly don’t take differences as a personal assault. Indeed, I am often moved to ask the hostile men who tweet me if I have ever met them, seeing how their interest in what I have done seems so personal. I am often tempted to reassure them that I am not out to upset them and that my interest in them has to grow to become even cursory. But things they say make me think their egos cannot take this and they would see it as an insult rather than as a sign of civility.

4) I expect to debate on equal terms.

I have called the CBCP a liar for its claims that condoms do not protect against HIV infection. I would go further and condemn it for adding to the likelihood of deaths from AIDS because of its misinformation.

This is probably why some anti-RH think I hate/dislike/am an enemy of the Church.

Truth is, as an agnostic and law-abiding citizen, I will not contest whatever it is that the CBCP says in Churches. I don’t have a stake in theological matters such as whether Catholics should only have sex for the purposes of procreation.

Thus, when Catholic friends and relatives rail against the anti-RH sermons, I am sympathetic but non-argumentative. I wish for them that their Church could find a way to listen to their views because I like their interpretations of what Christianity (and Jesus) should mean to their own lives and society. But I am invested in such matters only because I love my friends and relatives.

But when the CBCP enters public space to make unscientific and dangerous statements, I do not feel obligated to treat it as anything else but an equal. I can call it a liar, without being disrespectful to Jesus.

When the CBCP insists that all of us (including agnostics) should have sex only for procreation, then I can accuse it of authoritarianism without implying that I believe Jesus is a fascist. (To repeat, theological questions about the nature of Jesus are not something I have an opinion about.)

There is intellectual duplicity here. The Church makes public statements that people may find offensive. Its defenders stop us from criticizing under the principle of respect for religion. That is really not a call for religious respect. It is a call to privilege the views of one religion by preventing it from being analyzed and criticized.

5) It is cruel to use the death and suffering of people to argue for your political cause.

At the start of the Habagat floods, which was also when the House of Representatives voted to end the plenary debates on RH, I tweeted, “please no one use the suffering of Metro Manila now to claim God’s endorsement of their cause. If there is a God, s/he can’t be that slimy.”

True enough, anti-RH politician, Mitos Magsaysay, tweeted, “Heaven must be crying, we should undo what has been done.” Magsaysay denied the newspaper report on this later, saying that she was talking about the environment. So let me recalibrate my rating of her from “cruel” to “insensitive.”

After her, there are newspaper reports of similar statements from the fathers of the Church. Bishop Pabillo claimed that the massive destruction, misery, and death caused by typhoon Pablo is related to the discussions on the RH bill. Bishop Arguelles likens President Aquino to the killer of school children in Connecticut. Bishop Garcera sees overpopulation as a boon because it is the reason we have a large group of overseas Filipina domestic workers. Garcera sees in the poverty that causes people to seek overseas work, the homesickness and loneliness of our OFWs, the often difficult working conditions, the abuse and violence, “God’s plan” for the Philippines and its women.

Respecting The Different Other

I think the main spiritual difference is that I value diversity in Philippine society and culture. I think it deeply wrong to deny data or opinions that contradict what I believe. Valuing difference allows me to change my clinical practice so that may patients may benefit from the latest scientific information. Valuing difference frees me from the impulse of demonizing others so that I may dismiss their beliefs.

It is my hope that when the Supreme Court takes up those petitions against the RH law, it takes cognizance of the views of those who find it culturally acceptable, ethically defensible and congruent with the Constitution. It is my hope that the Supreme Court listens to the scientists among us, to those of other faiths and non-faiths, and to those whose cultural practices differ from the petitioners.

I ask this not because the Supreme Court has to decide who among us is truly moral. It does not have to decide who among us are truly Filipino in our ways. It need not attempt to stop the divisiveness of the issue nor soothe the bitter disappointment of those who are against the law.

I hope that the Supreme Court decides that it cannot and must not arbitrate against diversity. It can only arbitrate respect for spiritual differences by upholding a law that at the end of a long and thorough national debate, gained the support of a majority of lawmakers and citizens. – Rappler.com




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