The Secular and Profane: Toward a healthy discussion of the Reproductive Health Bill

The Secular and Profane: Toward a healthy discussion of the Reproductive Health Bill
Francis Paolo M. Quina

The UP Forum Volume 9   Number 5    September-October 2008

Critics have called it the Reproductive Hell Bill, the Bill of Death, and—in an effort to make their sentiments crystal clear—the Disgusting and Devilish Bill. Name-calling has become part and parcel of the discussion on House Bill No. 5043, otherwise known as the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008, not only in broadsheets, blogs, and forums, whether online or otherwise, but also on the floor of the House of Representatives itself. In fact, one of the lawmakers opposed to the bill has even gone so far as to accuse the bill’s proponents of forging signatures of other House members to beef up the numbers in support of the bill.The Reproductive Health (RH) Bill has literally become the battleground for what can only be described as a long-brewing ‘culture war’ between ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals.’ And while it might be said that disagreements and debate are a healthy, even necessary, part of the democratic process, what stands out about the fight over the RH Bill is the disparity in discourse of the arguments made by supporters and critics. While the bill’s proponents cite statistics and scientific data, its opponents turn to scripture and its corresponding moral high ground, making unfounded claims that the bill is anti-poor, anti-life, and that it promotes or will even legalize abortion.

For Dr. Sylvia Estrada-Claudio, director of the UP Center for Women’s Studies, these misrepresentations can only be described as frustrating and unacceptable. She concedes that people regard sexuality differently based on their moral and religious beliefs and that one should be respectful of that, but at the same time she stresses that discussion about legislation, like the RH Bill, should be secular.

“There are ground rules we need to set up so we can have a genuine, respectful debate in a secular space. And those kinds [of misinformation], like the bill promotes abortion, are not acceptable,” she says, adding that people should take the time to read the version of the bill being deliberated in the House, available at the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) website (http://plcpd.org.ph/). “No debate can happen if you’re not looking at the facts, and one of those facts is the actual bill.”

Watershed for abortion
One of the main points raised by opponents of the RH Bill is that it will either legalize abortion outright once it is passed, or serve as a watershed legislation designed to ease the legalization of abortion somewhere down the road. Estrada-Claudio says this claim is not based on facts. Nowhere in the RH Bill is it ever mentioned that abortion will be legalized. The bill even states early on that “nothing in this Act changes the law on abortion, as abortion remains a crime and is punishable.”

This point of contention seems to stem from a section of the RH Bill on the scope of services covered by RH care. The bill lists, among other services, the care of women who are suffering from “post-abortion complications,” which has been taken by some to mean that the bill is promoting abortion. But, as Estrada-Claudio explains, the scope of RH services listed in the bill is founded on several international papers including the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)’s Program of Action in Cairo and several technical papers of the World Health Organization. The same list of RH services is also in a Department of Health administrative order (DOH AO 1-A, January 15, 1998), released a decade ago.


Dr. Sylvia Estrada-Claudio

“The international consensus is: regardless of the status of abortion in your country, you have to manage women who are post-abortion humanely, whether they induced the abortion or didn’t, whether they did it illegally or not,” she says. “You have to have humane services for abortion complications.” Estrada-Claudio adds that the bill “keeps mentioning that abortion is not legal,” perhaps as a defense against the claims being hurled at it, and this is bothersome. It closes the door on a “rational, sane, democratic discussion we need to have about this issue in our society. We really need to have a national debate on abortion. To continue saying, ‘It’s illegal. Period. We don’t agree with it,’ does not help anyone. Certainly not the nation.”

Production and Reproduction
For Estrada-Claudio, the need for a comprehensive national RH program goes well beyond the issue of population; it is an issue of development as well. “Reproduction is of equal importance as production in society,” she says. A women’s health advocate for over twenty years, she has worked closely with community women, through the women’s NGO Likhaan, of which she is a co-founder, to deliver needed health services to poor communities. Likhaan does not see health as a stand-alone issue. “It is really capacitating communities to meet their health care needs,” she says, “and looking at health care broadly as just one element that needs to be addressed if communities are to develop.”

And RH is an essential part of any health care program, as it gives women the opportunity not only to plan their own families, but also ensure their own well-being. A recent study shows that around 400,000 women die every year in the Philippines because of complications due to maternity, and that more than half of those deaths are preventable through effective family planning. Through the RH Bill, Estrada- Claudio argues, women enjoy equal rights to health care as men, in that they will be given health care.

Sex Ed 101
Another aspect of the bill that has been met with an uproar is the provision on mandatory RH education for children beginning in Grade 5. Many believe that teaching children about reproductive health at that age will only encourage them to try sex sooner, rather than later. This view was given voice by Cebu Representative Pablo Garcia, who was quoted in an article in the Philippine Daily Inquirer lamenting that “[the RH Bill] will encourage promiscuity because anybody can now have sex, premarital or extramarital, without fear of acquiring disease.”

Estrada-Claudio says that, in the first place, such statements border on being “bigoted and discriminatory…, [going] beyond respect for other people’s lives.” Studies show that a sincere, age-appropriate RH education results in child people exercising more caution and delaying sexual activity. If and when they do finally engage in sex, they approach it more responsibly. Finally, RH education will help capacitate children against sexual abuse. In fact, Estrada-Claudio thinks RH education should be introduced earlier, since some cases of sexual abuse begin even before a child reaches Grade 5. Age-appropriate RH education for children involves teaching them the parts of their body, which of those parts should be kept private and respected, and the difference between acceptable and unacceptable touching.

10,000 miles away
Estrada-Claudio is optimistic about the bill’s chances in the house, noting that in the public hearings it became evident that more people support it rather than oppose it. She is also heartened by several similar initiatives in the Senate headed by the likes of Senators Pia Cayetano and Panfilo Lacson. But she also remains pragmatic, admitting that “[in] the legislative process, the real bill is created in the [bicameral committee]. And we’re 10,000 miles away [from that].” Nevertheless, for those such as herself who have spent the last seven years pushing for legislation on reproductive health, HB 5043 is a historic development. The discussion of the bill has gotten people “actively engaged and watching,” Estrada-Claudio says. “And that’s a good way of crafting social policy.”

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