climate change

The first stone

Patricia Evangelista
The men and women who are true Catholics believe that there is no price too high for their virtue. They will protect the imaginary unborn, but they will wash their hands when it comes to living women

Patricia Evangelista

The petitioner before the high court is a Catholic. He is a true Catholic, and represents all true Catholics. He is a man who claims that Catholicism requires absolute faith in the teachings of holy Mother Church. He believes that women who use contraceptives cannot claim to be Catholic.

Counsel, he is asked by the Chief Justice, are these women in sin, or are they in ignorance?

“Based on the teaching of the Catholic Church,” he says, “they are in sin.”

His name is Luisito Liban, counsel for the petitioner, questioning the constitutionality of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012.

He is puzzled, he says, that Congress was willing to waste the limited resources of the nation on an arbitrary law.

Women die, he admits. It is a true and unfortunate thing. He does not see why this government should mobilize its entire machinery, trample on fundamental rights and threaten sanctions for a handful of dead mothers.

Maternal deaths cannot be an excuse, he says. There are many other diseases, with thousands more deaths. Only about 160 women die at childbirth for every 100,000 live births.

“It is a mere point zero one six percent.”

The National Statistics Office registered 1,745,585 live births for the year 2009.

For that year alone, 2,827 women died at childbirth.

The sinner

Rowena is a mother. One day after she gave birth to her seventh child, she went to work with wads of cotton between her legs, and sold fish while her newborn slept under her wooden cart.

She was pregnant again one year later. Her husband was out of work, did not want to work, was happier not working. She promised herself this child would be the last.

It almost was. Rowena nearly died while giving birth. At the time there were precious few statistics available calculating maternal mortality, but she considered it a fortunate thing that she lived. A mother with eight children could not afford to die.

Rowena did not want a ninth child. She did not know she could limit her children. No doctor said it was possible. She was a married woman, and her husband was a large man.

When she found herself pregnant again, she asked a midwife for help. The midwife told her about catheters.

When you put it inside, said the midwife, you’ll bleed away the baby. Wait until it hurts so much you can’t take it anymore. That’s when you pull out the catheter.

So Rowena waited, and she bled and bled and bled, on the floor of a room with damp green walls and a pink plastic clock that ticked away to midnight. When she pulled out the catheter, it was like jerking a hose off a faucet. Everything went black, the mattress turned red. She screamed for help before she fainted, because she did not want to die. She woke up in a hospital, gave them her name and nothing more.

Rowena lived. She was there when her children stopped school. She was there when her husband gambled what money there was left. She was there to see one of her daughters pregnant at 17.

Her daughter’s name is Rosa. She worked for a beerhouse along Third Avenue in Manila. Her boyfriend was an addict who would beat her until she begged.

The same midwife who gave Rowena advice was there when Rowena’s daughter Rosa aborted her first child. Rowena held her daughter’s hand while Rosa screamed. Rowena held the hand of Rosa’s youngest daughter two decades later. The girl was 14, and she bled more than her mother.

The soldiers of Christ

The poor, says Liban, are actually the victims of the RH Law, “because they can’t do otherwise.”

Liban says the Reproductive Health Law is a violation of the freedom of religion.

Under the law, a health worker is required to offer the public contraceptive advice. Anyone who disagrees can refuse; they are called conscientious objectors. They do not violate the law, so long as the patient is referred to another physician. A Catholic surgeon in the Philippine General Hospital can refuse to perform ligation, for as long as he refers another doctor.

By Liban’s definition, that Catholic doctor is a heretic. The true Catholic doctor, the soldier of Christ, must be armed with a conscience willing to withhold medical truths from a woman, or even the opportunity for a woman to discover that medical truth. The cost may be death, but this is not particularly important.

A sin is a sin, says Liban. The doctrine is clear. By referring a patient to another doctor, the objector becomes a sinner. The law forces them into damnation.

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics says that contributing factors to maternal mortality include early marriage, early pregnancies, close intervals between pregnancies, pregnancies after the age of 40, frequent childbirth, illiteracy, malnutrition and lack of access to contraception.

A woman unaware of these factors without the means to control them is a candidate for maternal death.

Every two minutes, somewhere in the world, a woman dies at childbirth. In the Philippines, seven women die every day.

The greater sin

There is a pink clock on the wall of a house in Manila. An old woman sits beneath it.

The woman is a criminal. Her name may or may not be Rowena, because to name her is also to name her daughter and granddaughter. She is a bird of a woman, all wrinkles and sharp little bones inside a faded blue T-shirt.

She is fortunate, and so is her family. Had Rowena died during any of the eight times she gave birth, she would have been part of a statistic that is of little importance to Liban’s nation. Had she died in the attempt to abort the ninth, she would have been part of another statistic, the one Liban does not talk about. 

Today she is only an old woman sitting under a clock, whose story is so impossible it is easier to believe her narrative is an attempt at a moral lesson.

In the Church of Liban, Rowena does not matter. Her daughter does not matter. Her granddaughter does not matter. Maybe it is because they are women, or maybe it is because they are sinners. Yet no matter how much the Magisterium may ignore their existence, this nation cannot.

Counsel, Liban is asked, are these women in sin, or are they in ignorance?

Based on the teaching of the Catholic Church, he says, they are in sin.

The men and women who are true Catholics believe that there is no price too high for their virtue. They will protect the imaginary unborn, but they will wash their hands when it comes to living women. Perhaps the choice to ignore the suffering is justified by the weight of the women’s sins.

The Lord may have mercy, and Christ may have mercy, but mercy may be beneath the congregation of Luisito Liban. –

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