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PHILIPPINES: Reproductive Health Tests Candidates’ Political Guts

Kara Santos

MANILA, Mar 12 2010 (IPS) - Filipino voters who have yet to make up their minds about their choice for their next president are being advised: look at each aspirant’s stance on reproductive health to help them gauge the candidate’s leadership mettle and political guts.

A basket of condoms passed around during International Women's Day in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

A basket of condoms passed around during International Women's Day in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

A candidate’s position on issues like reproductive health, which has a long history of opposition from the Catholic Church in this mainly Catholic country, reveals clues regarding his or her capacity for governance, says Ramon San Pascual, head of the Philippine Legislative Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD).

“If you see a presidential candidate readily tackling the issue of (reproductive health) and who has the courage to confront the biggest institution — the Catholic Church – (this) shows what kind of governance he or she will have the moment they win the presidency,” says San Pascual.

Indeed, 15 years after the Beijing declaration on women’s rights emphasised “explicit recognition and reaffirmation of the right of all women to control all aspects of their health in particular their own fertility”, this South-east Asian country remains mired in debates over modern or ‘artificial’ contraceptives, whose use the Church considers immoral.

Nowhere is this more evident than during the campaign period ahead of the May 10 presidential election in this country, 85 percent of whose 92 million people are Catholic.

Alongside issues like corruption and the economy, reproductive health has emerged among the perpetual and controversial talking points in public forums attended by candidates, especially those gunning for the presidency.

It is, after all, linked to many Filipinos’ daily concerns about family planning, cost of living, health, education and options on reproductive health. “It’s important to look at the reproductive health agenda of the candidates because of the problem of overpopulation in our country,” says Ellen Guanzon, a mother of two.

The Philippines’ population growth rate of 1.90 percent from 2005 to 2010 is still among the highest in East Asia, although this has gone down from 2.3 percent in the nineties. In a country that has no clear policy on family planning and population, more than 4,000 babies are added to its population every day.

In poorer areas, women have as many as six to seven children due to the lack of access and information to modern methods of family planning in the last decade. Depending on which government was in power, local clinics were giving out information about contraception that included condoms or were instructed to avoid doing so.

Incumbent President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who came to power with the backing of the Church, has consistently emphasised natural family planning – including abstinence –and “responsible parenthood” over modern methods.

Thus far, three of the nine presidential candidates seem to be in favour of having a legislated policy on reproductive health, San Pascual says, based on their track records and public pronouncements.

Such a law on family planning, including artificial methods of contraception, has yet to be passed by Congress eight years after it was first filed in the legislature. Politicians are generally wary of offending the Church, which has made no secret of its staunch opposition to the bill, and losing potential voters that the Church is seen to wield tremendous influence over.

In favour of the reproductive bill are Sen. Benigno Aquino III, evangelical Christian leader Eddie Villanueva and former President Joseph Estrada, who was ousted in a popular rising in 2001, convicted for corruption and then pardoned.

Those who San Pascual sees as having an open mind and may allow Congress to debate and decide on the bill as it wishes include candidates Sen. Jamby Madrigal, Sen. Richard Gordon and activist Nicanor Perlas.

Those he considers as against being against reproductive health legislation are three other candidates – Gilberto Teodoro Jr, who the candidate of the incumbent government, Sen. Manuel Villar and town councillor JC de los Reyes.

In late 2009, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) warned the electorate not to vote for candidates who favour the reproductive health bill. “It would not be morally permissible to vote for candidates who support anti-family policies, including reproductive health,” said the CBCP’s Catechism on Family and Life for the 2010 Elections.

The election guidelines for Catholics state that contraception is “morally wrong…endangers the spiritual health of the marriage” and “impedes the process or possible fruit of conception”, which the Church says should be the point of conjugal union. Voters who elect pro-reproductive health candidates in the May poll would become willing accomplices to “evil”, they added.

But advocates say that the failure to pass the reproductive health bill has been detrimental to women’s health.

“Eleven women die every day due to pregnancy and childbirth-related causes, almost half of all pregnancies are unintended and one-third of unintended pregnancies end in abortion,” says lawyer Clara Rita Padilla, executive director of EngendeRights Inc, a non-government organisation promoting women’s rights through legal advocacy.

Asks Padilla: “Will the next president turn a blind eye and not provide for the proper budget for wide access to reproductive health information, supplies and services simply because such a stance would take the ire of the CBCP?”

Already, PLCPD’s San Pascual notes, candidates for the 2010 polls have been careful not to make their statements on reproductive health issues too strong because of the perceived weight of the Church’s position among many voters. But he says, “By trying to balance their agenda so that they will not face the ire of their bishop or parish, they end up not helping their constituents or giving justice to their job as a public servant.”

Guanzon, a Catholic, says that though she and her husband do not use artificial methods of contraception, such decisions should rest on couples themselves. “I am against abortion but I don’t agree with what the Church is saying that pills and condoms are anti-life. These kinds of methods prevent pregnancy from happening in the first place,” she adds.

A survey by the Pulse Asia polling group, released Friday, shows that 64 percent of Filipinos would vote for candidates who publicly promote modern methods of family planning and that 75 percent think it is important for a candidate to include family planning in his or her programme of action.

The same pre-election survey on family planning also shows that 87 percent believe it is important for the government to allocate funds for methods of contraception such as birth control pills, intrauterine devices, condoms and vasectomy.

Almost half of the respondents – 48 percent – disagrees that the Church should participate in the choice of family planning methods. Fifty-one percent do not believe that using modern methods is a sin.

“There has to be a provision for reproductive health because the only ones who get information and medical services are those who can afford these,” says Kitty Gorospe, a technical assistant with a background in medical technology. Right now, she points out, poor families continue to have more children despite their inability to raise them properly.

Previous governments have had different policies on reproductive health. During her term from 1986 to 1992, former President Corazon Aquino, a devout Catholic who had strong Church backing, took the Church’s position against artificial methods of family planning.

Under her Protestant successor, Fidel Ramos, the number of family planning programmes rose significantly and more health workers were employed.

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