[OPINION] It’s time for the Philippines to decriminalize abortion

Editor's Note: During the transition of this opinion piece to our new platform, another author with a similar name as Clara Rita Padilla got mistakenly tagged as a co-author. We have corrected the byline for this piece. We sincerely apologize for the error.

Last May 25, in a historic referendum, Ireland paved the way to increase access to abortion. The Irish citizens who voted to repeal the 8th amendment to the Constitution providing equal protection to the life of the woman and the unborn have won. This is great news for Irish women and for women living in restrictive abortion laws.

Finally, the overwhelming vote of 66.4% to repeal the 8th amendment is in line with women’s right to health. It clearly manifests respect for women’s right to decide and a significant step to save women’s lives and freedom from disability that result from denial of access to safe and legal abortion. 

Currently, abortion is only allowed in Ireland to save the woman's life. This restriction led to the death in 2012 of a woman who miscarried and was denied her request to complete abortion. She was told that there was no risk to her life, eventually leading to her death due to sepsis.  

Irish legislators are immediately proposing to allow abortion for 12 weeks of gestation and thereafter on various grounds.  

Predominantly Catholic countries have liberalized their laws on abortion. In Spain in 2010, Prime Minister Zapatero was at the helm of legalizing abortion on request during the first 14 weeks of the pregnancy and thereafter on specific grounds. Countries such as Belgium, France, and Italy allow abortion upon a woman’s request. Poland allows abortion to protect a woman’s life and physical health and in cases of rape, incest, and fetal impairment. Hungary allows abortion up to 12 weeks of gestation. Portugal allows abortion up to 10 weeks of gestation. Brazil allows it on certain grounds.   

Almost all former Spanish colonies, mostly with predominant Catholic populations, have liberalized their laws on abortion, allowing abortion on certain grounds: Argentina, Bahamas, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela. That leaves the Philippines to contend with its antiquated colonial Spanish law.

Mexico City, a predominantly Catholic city, even provides safe and legal abortion for free. In 2017, then former head of state of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, strongly campaigned to relax their abortion law. Only 6 countries – particularly, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Malta and Dominican Republic – are left with a total ban on abortion.

Other countries with constitutional protection of the life of the unborn from conception allow abortion under certain exceptions: Hungary (up to 12 weeks of gestation); Costa Rica, South Africa, Slovak Republic, Poland (risk to woman's life and health, rape, fetal impairment); and Kenya.

I hope the Philippines will follow this global liberalization on abortion and soon decriminalize abortion since presently abortion is only recognized in our country to save the woman's life and for medical necessity based on a 1961 supreme Court decision.  

In August 2016, a 21-year old Filipino woman who became pregnant as a result of the rape died a day after her risky childbirth due to complications resulting from her dwarfism condition. Her mother lamented that her daughter might still be alive had her daughter been able to access safe and legal abortion.

While therapeutic abortion is allowed in the Philippines to save the life of a woman or to prevent disability, there various other reasons why Filipino women undergo abortion – why they induce abortion: 

  • Economic
  • Inability to afford the cost of raising a child or an additional child – 75% of the women
  • Having enough children or their pregnancy came too soon after their last birth – more than half of the women
  • Too young – 46% were women younger than 25
  • Health risks – nearly one-third of the women
  • Rape – 13% of the women
  • Pregnancy not supported by partner or family – one-third of the women

There is a very high incidence of rape in the Philippines. A Filipino woman or girl is raped every 58 minutes, and about one in every 9 Filipino women who induce abortion are rape survivors. Some women and girl-children who became pregnant resulting from rape were forced to resort to clandestine and unsafe abortions to end their unwanted pregnancies while others have tried to commit suicide. 

Without access to safe and legal abortion, they end up part of the statistics of women who die from unsafe abortion complications. These cases fall under the ambit of therapeutic abortions to save the life and health of the woman.

Most of the women who are hospitalized and die from complications from unsafe abortion are poor, Roman Catholics, married, with at least 3 children, and have at least a high school education. Poor women comprise two-thirds of those who induce abortion, using riskier abortion methods, thus disproportionately experiencing severe complications. This clearly shows that lack of access to safe abortion is a social justice issue. 

The archaic Spanish colonial law on abortion in our 1930 Revised Penal Code has not decreased the number of women who induce abortion. Rather, it has made it dangerous for women who resort to clandestine and unsafe abortion.  

It is urgent to increase access to safe and legal abortion. The problem, in the past years and until now, is that certain medical health care providers deny life-saving post-abortion care to women and threaten them with criminal prosecution whether the women had induced or spontaneous abortion.  Women who suffer complications from induced and spontaneous abortion are often denied treatment or experience delay and harsh treatment by health professionals, leading to high maternal mortality and morbidity. There have also been documented cases where medical health care providers deny life-saving procedures even in cases of intrauterine fetal death where therapeutic abortion is needed to save the life of the woman.

Abortion is common in the Philippines with about 70 women inducing abortion every hour and about 11 women hospitalized every hour from unsafe abortion complications in 2012. The number of women who have induced abortion in 2018 would be significantly higher since the number of women inducing abortion increases proportionally with the growing Philippine population. About 1,000 women died from unsafe abortion complications in 2012, translating to about 3 women dying every day.  

Unsafe abortion is the 3rd leading cause of maternal death and is a leading cause of hospitalizations. The Philippines needs to step up its efforts to increase access to safe and legal abortion to meet its Sustainable Development Goals commitment to decrease maternal mortality ratio to two-thirds of 2010 levels.  

It is time to make abortion safe and legal in the Philippines.

In August 2006, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW Committee), the United Nations body tasked to monitor Philippine compliance with the CEDAW Convention, recommended for the Philippines to “consider reviewing the laws relating to abortion with a view to removing punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion and provide them with access to quality services for the management of complications arising from unsafe abortions."  

In May 2015, the CEDAW Committee released its report on its inquiry on reproductive rights and recommended to the Philippine government that articles 256 to 259 of the Revised Penal Code be amended to “legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, threats to the life and/or health of the mother, or serious malformation of the foetus and decriminalize all other cases where women undergo abortion, as well as adopt necessary procedural rules to guarantee effective access to legal abortion.” 

In the 2016 CEDAW Committee Concluding Observations, the committee recommended for the Philippines to “fully implement, without delay, all the recommendations issued by the Committee in 2015 in the report on its inquiry, including on access to modern contraceptives and legalization of abortion under certain circumstances."

We must all work to eliminate abortion stigma and religious and personal prejudices against abortion, as abortion is a reality for Filipino women. Health care providers must set in place institutional safeguards and protocols to ensure patient confidentiality, privacy, and protection of women's human rights. Women who suffer complications from unsafe abortion must be treated humanely and with compassion and should not be threatened with prosecution. Together, let us save women’s lives and prevent disability resulting from denial of access to safe and legal abortion. – Rappler.com 

Lawyer Clara Rita Padilla is the founder and executive director of EnGendeRights. She has worked in the Philippines and in New York, and has been practicing law for over 24 years, working in the fields of gender and has won several Supreme Court en banc cases. She successfully proposed language in various laws, including the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, Reproductive Health Law, Expanded Anti-Trafficking Law, Quezon City Protection Center for Victims of Gender-based Violence ordinance, and QC Gender-Fair City ordinance. She spearheaded the submission of the request for inquiry to the CEDAW Committee in collaboration with the Philippine Task Force CEDAW Inquiry, Center for Reproductive Rights, and IWRAW-Asia Pacific.