A Thirst for RH: Rectifying Misconceptions, Setting Records Straight

Contraceptives, sex education, abortion, population control – these things automatically come to mind at the mention of the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill. Thanks to strong and vocal opposition led by the Catholic Church leaders, controversies and heated debates surrounded the bill’s ratification. Regrettably, majority of the issues raised and given focus by the media and RH critics paved the way for the real essence of the bill to be overlooked. Critics focused on the contraceptive aspect but the bill is not limited to family planning; its spirit is the attainment of holistic human development. Legislators formulated it for a crucial concern – a comprehensive and effective reproductive health policy in the Philippines is long overdue.

Republic Act 10354 or popularly referred to as the RH Bill would be a beneficial law. It would provide optimal reproductive health services to the populace, which would consequently improve their quality of life. However, numerous Filipinos have been misinformed. The traditionalist stance of the Catholic Church had influenced many of its members to dispute the RH Bill. But one’s religion is actually out of the question because the bill itself repeatedly emphasized that individuals be allowed to make reproductive health decisions consistent with their religious convictions. There are several other misconceptions about RH Bill that once clarified would make a critic root for the RH Law.

Pro-life, Not Pro-abortion
Those who claim that the RH Bill is anti-life probably have not read the provisions of the bill yet. It explicitly advocates for the protection of the life of the unborn (Sec. 2) and promotes a reproductive health program that caters to the needs of individuals throughout their life cycle (Sec. 3p). It specifically declares that, “The State shall also promote openness to life” (Sec. 2d). What could be more pro-life than that?

The RH Bill does not legalize abortion. In fact, it evidently proclaims the unlawfulness of the act and penalizes it. Treatment of women with post-abortion complications (under Sections 2j and 4q3) does not equate to legalizing abortion. These provisions only acknowledge the impossibility of eradicating abortion, despite its being unlawful. Citizens’ violation of laws does not free the government from its responsibility to care for its people. The government recognizes every person’s right to life, thus, it cannot deny anyone from health services, even someone who underwent abortion.

The use of contraceptives is frowned upon by the Catholic Church. For them, contraceptives are abortifacient (drug that causes early abortion) but according to Senator Pia Cayetano, the RH Bill does not endorse abortifacients and instead prohibits it. She further asserts that contraceptives are safe and effective because they shall be approved first by the Foods and Drugs Administration (FDA).

Moreover, the Humanae Vitae encyclical of the late Pope Paul VI bans Catholics from using artificial family planning methods. The encyclical described artificial family planning as a deliberate and direct prevention of conception, which supposedly is immoral and makes someone an anti-life. This argument of the Church is flawed. Natural family planning shares the objective of artificial method and that is to prevent a woman’s pregnancy. It is illogical to accept one method and reject the other when, at the end of the day, both natural and artificial methods prevent conception. The Catholic Church has no right to determine which of these methods are immoral and anti-life on the basis of an encyclical because not every Filipino adheres to Catholic doctrines.

Another feature of the bill is the Maternal Death Review and Fetal and Infant Death Review. Health Secretary Enrique Ona reported that the mortality rate for Filipino mothers rose from 162 per 100,000 live births to 221 per 100,000 live births in 2011. He admitted that this rapid increase is alarming. The conduct of the aforementioned reviews would contribute to the development of more responsive and efficient reproductive health services that will promote women’s health and safe motherhood, which in the long run will help prevent miscarriages and maternal mortality.

Pro-Informed Choices
If the RH Bill is consistent about one thing; it is its high regard for individuals’ right to choose and make decisions for themselves in accordance with their “religious convictions, ethics, cultural beliefs, and the demands of responsible parenthood” (Sec. 2). All of its provisions are grounded on the basic principle of democracy, which is liberty. The control over the direction of one’s life is entrusted to every Filipino through the bill. The government merely assists the citizens by educating them with the necessary information on all aspects of life and ensuring that the decisions couples, women and adolescents make are informed choices. An informed choice means equipping them with the knowledge of consequences and responsibilities that their actions would entail.

As opposed to criticisms from the Church, no two child policy or ideal family size is being imposed in the bill. Several provisions of the bill (Sec. 3 f and k) recognized the couples’ right to decide on their desired family size with due consideration to the health and the resources available and affordable to them. The government’s role is simply to ensure that health workers have the expertise to provide relevant information to couples. It is still the families who would determine what would be best for them since what works for one family may not work for another.

Regarding the promotion of family planning methods, the bill holds no bias between the natural and artificial methods. So it is wrong to label RH advocates as artificial contraceptive maniacs. The bill promotes both methods and couples may not employ any method at all; the choice is totally up to them. Information and access to all the methods of family planning that are medically proven safe and effective by the FDA would be provided. Again, it leaves the decision to the couples and advises them to take into account their values, religious beliefs, and what suits them best.

To safeguard individual’s right to informed choices, the bill identified certain penalties to any health worker or public officer who would prohibit or restrict access to legal and medically safe reproductive health care services; or would force, coerce, or induce any person to said services (Sec. 23 & 24). The inclusion of these provisions is a manifestation of the government’s respect to individuals’ self-worth and dignity. The freedom to decide on family affairs allows families to feel in control and become more productive. Pro-choice laws would contribute to the development of democratic institutions and consequently produce more participative and goal-driven citizens.

A Step to a Quality life
The Catholic Church encourages procreation. For them, having as many children as possible is a way of promoting life and following God’s wishes to “be fruitful and multiply.” A person’s right to life is not solely manifested by being born. It also includes the rights to satisfy physiological needs, possess a productive existence, and receive fair treatment among others. Procreation, in itself, is not incorrect but the problem arises after birth because there are couples who have inadequate resources to provide a quality life for their children. Thus, the RH bill maintains that, “parents bring forth to the world only those children whom they can raise in a truly humane way” (Sec. 2 d; emphasis added).

Many of today’s societal dilemmas (out-of-school youths, street children, malnutrition, child exploitation, teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, crimes, and environmental degradation) root from the rapid population growth of the underprivileged class. This is the class of people who were denied of awareness about necessary reproductive health issues and their right to informed choices. It is ironic that those who have less are the ones who need to feed more mouths. Obviously this condition is caused by ignorance, brought along by poverty, which prevents parents from rearing their children in a truly humane way.

The RH Bill is a big step to stop the vicious chain of poverty. It would not resolve poverty ultimately but through its programs, the poorest of the poor, the uneducated, and the marginalized sector would gain access to information that is essential to sound family planning and decision-making. The door to accessible reproductive health care services and responsible parenthood would also open, which would allow the underprivileged to intelligently direct their family affairs and manage their family size.

In addition, access to information that RH Bill promises is a milestone for women empowerment and protection of women and children’s rights. Awareness of one’s body and rights contributes to a person’s assertiveness. With the age-appropriate and development-appropriate reproductive health education, adolescents would be equipped with knowledge and skills that would aid them against discrimination, sexual abuse, violence and other gender-related prejudices.

Critics of RH Bill are mistaken in claiming that the bill is a tool for population control. The objective of RH Bill is not to decrease population. In fact, it recognizes the importance of citizens or human resource to nation-building that is why it promotes a comprehensive and effective reproductive health program that would be for the best interest of the populace. What it seeks is population development not population control because progress is not embraced through number but by the quality of people. A country’s population may either be an asset or a liability, depending on its characteristics. Through the RH bill, the Philippines would have a mechanism for monitoring the quality of life of its population and ensuring that the reproductive wellness of the populace is improved. 

Political and Not a Religious Affair
The RH controversy is a battle mainly fought between the Government and the Catholic Church despite the outright declaration of the separation of State and Church in Article II, Section 6 of the Philippine Constitution. Reproductive health is without a doubt a political issue. And being true to the Constitution, it must be none of the Catholic Church’s business. Religious groups can voice out their stand but they cannot dictate State affairs.

Although majority of Filipinos are Catholics, other religions also exist in the country. The State is not supposed to support a particular religion’s stand on an issue because it would be violative of other religions’ principles. For instance, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) Executive Minister Eduardo Manalo expressed his church’s support for the RH Bill in a letter to Representative Rogelio Espina dated October 12, 2010. The INC favors the usage of artificial methods of contraception as long as they are not abortifacient. Minister Manalo explained that planning the number of children and providing their basic necessities are part of parents’ moral obligations, and artificial family planning assists in fulfilling these obligations. According to Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, other faith-based organizations that are pro-RH bill include: Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the Interfaith Partnership for the Promotion of Responsible Parenthoood, and the Assembly of Darul-Iftah of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

The Philippines is in dire need of an effective and comprehensive reproductive health care. A Social Weather Survey (SWS) survey showed that 71 percent of Roman Catholics are also in favor of the bill’s enactment. Another survey by the SWS conducted from November 29 to December 3 showed that 33 percent as opposed to 9 percent of Filipino adults will vote in the May 2013 elections for candidates who supported the RH bill. Benjamin de Leon, president of Forum for Family Planning and Development and commissioner of the Commission on Population, affirmed that survey results have been consistently in favor of the passage of RH bill. This only shows that the Filipino people are aware of the benefits that a reproductive health care could provide. It is safe to say that only the Catholic Church stands in the way. Thus, it would be unjust if lawmakers would allow the doctrines of the Catholic Church to affect the enactment of laws.

In a society faced with modern dilemmas and ever changing issues, the traditionalist perspective of the Catholic Church would only make the Philippines lag behind. Embracing developmental and pro-choice stance on addressing problems would be the country’s saving grace. The Philippines has long been dehydrated of solutions to significant sociopolitical problems. It is time to quench the country’s thirst. Cheers to RH!

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