The Philippine RH Bill Debate and How It Is Turning Into A Religious War Against Contraceptives

The Bill is on its fourth year of discussion yet the two sides – Legislators and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines –  are missing the point.  Louder this time and more urgently, the CBCP’s stand is, RH Bill equals aborted and-dead-while-in-transit-to-the-womb children (or, is it fetuses).  On the other hand, while the Bishops continue to make arguments, nothing substantial is heard from the legislators except for bland statements now and then.  One wonders what they know about their proposal, if at all.  The continuing debate – although as it is it can’t be called that – has not once produced intelligent presentation of information, negotiation points, and arguments.  It has been three years of intermittent ‘I say Yes!’ vs ‘and I say No!’.  Like wife and husband who would rather see their marriage break because neither wants to make an effort to really understand the other’s point of view.

The lack of substance is something else as the issue – reproductive health – is now given personal and religious definitions.  But the Bill clearly cites ‘prevention of abortion and management of post-abortion complications’ as among reproductive health care services.  This alone refutes the perception that the Bill espouses or encourages abortion.  I believe it is the provision on ‘family planning information and services’ that agitates the Bishops so much.  But, if only they would take time to do their research, they’d see that the service is about facilitating universal access to available family planning technology (which are already available in the market anyway) and that it is the individual or couple who decides if and when they want such information and service, as when choosing over what to buy from among the display of goods in the grocery which depends on the consumer’s capacity to pay, consume, the value placed on a certain good or brand, etc.  The act of buying, while it looks like simply an act of grabbing a good from a shelf stems from a complex interaction of the buyer’s values, preferences, economic capacity, etc.  The good, without a buyer, could very well sit on the shelf until its expiration.  It is the buyer – individuals and couples of reproductive age – who knows what they want and then makes the choice.

The Bill further cites rights in reproductive health:

  1. to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children;
  2. to make other decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence;
  3. to have the information and means to carry out their decisions;
  4. to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health.

Nowhere in the above statements is abortion or killing of fetuses implied or explicit.  The first right pertains to the manner in which the decision of the number, spacing, and timing of children is undertaken.  As when a couple freely decides to have two children, two years apart, one born in summer, another in spring.  As to how the couple would achieve their objectives is a private decision meaning the State or the Church does not dictate.  The third RH right says not even the law would prescribe how the couple will come to a decision.  Here, I believe the beloved Bishops should revisit their own and the Church’ teachings – because even God does not force His Will but that He gives humans the right to make the choice.  Hence by imposing their will, the Bishops are being tyrannical and un-godly.

Reproductive health, as the Bill defines it, is ‘the state of physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes’.  I don’t know what in this definition the good Bishops and others who oppose reproductive health find offensive.  What I find offensive is the argument that the Bill supposedly promotes promiscuity.  I regard the persons behind this misplaced campaign as no better than quack doctors.  The Bill includes the promiscuous in it’s target services, not so they become more promiscuous rather to protect or minimize the risks of his or her behavior.  A parallel example would be, the State providing food to prisoners even while they are serving time in prison.  Prisoners have the right to food and when food is denied them they could complain to the Prison Warden.  Right to food and the prison sentence are two different things.  So are RH and contraceptives.  Two different things although related. The good Bishops should, in humility, take the initiative to study the subject or listen to those who have technical authority on the subject (such as people from the Department of Health who by the way have been strangely silent in the debate).

Do contraceptives kill or cause abortion?  Again, contraceptives and abortion are two different things.  I believe we all need to go back to the basics of reproduction.  I will write about that as a separate topic.  I do know however that if the user continues to be on contraceptives upon suspect or knowledge of pregnancy the contraceptive then becomes an abortifacient.

In the debate of contraceptives and family planning services, the assumption is that the user is a woman even while services and products are available to the man.  Herein lies the core issue in reproductive health – control:  whose body? whose well being? whose decision?

I’ve worked in a reproductive health project and the RH issues of men and women in the villages included women disempowerment as in men having control over their partners’ bodies which if denied could turn to assault; improper care of the woman who has given birth leading to death or injury; disease as when a partner seeks sexual satisfaction outside the relationship; infertility and the stigma attached to this; men’s intimate issues as for example the sense of failure when they don’t perform to “manly” standards.  Public health service providers are not trained in the protocol and sensitivities critical in RH service which has discouraged individuals and couples from seeking the service, if there are.

Issues in RH are very intimate and private.  Most people are not comfortable acknowledging the issue, if they have, to themselves.  Because some issues link up to behaviors that are contrary to acceptable mores, there is the danger of self-censure even before service or treatment is sought.

A responsible community is one in which the Church and State come to terms with their innermost fears and prejudices.  The silence of the public, particularly Catholics, is because of its fear of backlash as when they’d be ‘excommunicated’ or ‘deserving God’s wrath’.  It is unfair and tyrannical for the Bishops to hang this threat out over the heads of engaged, critically-thinking citizens.  I believe the first move out of the deadlock is for the Bishops, in humility, following their Supreme Bishop, Jesus, to set aside their biases and listen without judgment what the other side have to say.  I believe no individual or institution has all the knowledge and wisdom of any given subject.  It is in dialogue which the Catholic Church encourages and seeks that truths are revealed because ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst’.  The Bishops have to model this Word of God, to come down from their detached and safe spot behind the pulpit and be at level with the people.

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