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PHILIPPINES: Criminal Ban, Stigma Drive Unsafe Abortions

Diana Mendoza

MANILA, Sep 2 2010 (IPS) - “I felt scared. When I looked around, all the mothers had finished giving birth, while I was still there. The blood that flowed from me had already dried and caked onto my body,” Lisa, a 19-year-old married mother of three, says, recounting her experience in post-abortion care at a public hospital here in the Philippine capital.

Lisa was haemorrhaging when she was rushed to the Gat Andres Bonifacio Memorial Medical Centre hospital, a week after suffering high fever, severe pain and bleeding as a result of her attempt to induce abortion by drinking brandy and vino de quina, a rice wine believed to induce post- partum bleeding.

Lisa was one of the Filipino women cited in ‘Forsaken Lives: The Harmful Impact of the Philippine Criminal Abortion Ban’ published in August by the New York-based Centre for Reproductive Rights (CRR), the first comprehensive report on the impact of the ban on abortion in this mainly Catholic country in South-east Asia.

According to the 126-page report that was the result of two years’ research, Lisa experienced a range of abuses when she sought medical care, including being physically bound, having her privacy violated, and verbally abused by doctors and nurses who threatened to report her to the police because she had aborted her baby.

Every year, the report added, 560,000 Filipino women turn to abortion. It said 90,000 of them suffer from complications, and 1,000 die from crude and extremely painful methods such as intense abdominal massages by traditional midwives, the insertion of catheters into the uterus and the medically unsupervised consumption of Cytotec, the local brand name of a drug containing misoprostol to induce uterine contractions, and the ingestion of herbs and other concoctions sold by street vendors.

These situations happen because women with unwanted pregnancies are driven to go underground to seek abortions, which are illegal under Philippine law.


Abortion-related complications are among the top 10 reasons for the hospitalisation of Filipino women in this country of 94 million people, making it a public health concern. The country’s population is growing by 1.96 percent annually and its total fertility rate is 3.23, or an average of three children per woman of child-bearing age. Some two million births are added every year.

Health advocates say that the criminal ban on abortion – in a Catholic culture that attaches heavy stigma to it and where modern contraception is cause for controversy – leaves Filipino women with unwanted pregnancies little choice but to go for unsafe abortions despite their deadly risks.

The public discussion of abortion gets caught in moral arguments, mainly by the powerful Catholic Church, which objects to reproductive health initiatives.

“Abortions are going on and here we are,” said Florence Tadiar, president of the Institute for Social Studies and Action, which advocates for women’s health and rights.

She says that dialogues have been held between Catholic bishops and the government on sexuality education and responsible parenthood to help curb unwanted pregnancies, but they avoid sensitive matters such as a bill on reproductive health. “We in the civil society organisations also wanted to talk to them because we wanted to explain that the bill prevents (women from seeking) abortion, but they don’t want to level with us,” she explained.

A few days after the CRR report’s release, Archbishop Oscar Cruz said “contraception prevents life”.

“There is no specific law in the country to address this public health problem (maternal deaths from abortion),” said Clara Rita Padilla, executive director of the advocacy group EnGendeRights.

The CRR says that the Philippines is among only a few countries that prohibit and criminally punish abortion without recognising clear legal exceptions, such as if a woman’s pregnancy poses a threat to her life or health, if she is a victim of rape or incest, or in cases of fetal impairment.

“The Philippine government has created a dire human rights crisis in the country,” CRR president Nancy Northup in a statement released with the report. “Thousands of women resort to abortion to protect their health, families, and livelihood. Yet, the government sits idly by refusing to tackle the issue or reform the policies that exacerbate it.”

Melissa Upreti, CRR legal adviser for Asia, says while most Catholic countries such as Nicaragua, Chile and El Salvador criminalise abortion, the Philippines stands out due to its extreme law and blanket prohibition. “The law has created an environment of judgment and stigma – women who seek medical treatment for abortion-related complications are often harassed and abused by health providers or given substandard quality of care,” she said.

The situation is worsened by an “antiquated” law that Spain, the Philippines’ former coloniser, passed in 1887, and is reflected in the 1972 Revised Penal Code that makes abortion a punishable offence with no clear exceptions, adds Alfredo Tadiar, a former judge who heads the International Development Law Organisation.

The hostile environment is such that service providers of maternal and child health care, such as nurses, doctors and midwives, are also arrested, Tadiar explains. “This is enough to chill the situation,” he said. “No service provider is safe.”

Tadiar adds that health care providers of hospitals supervised by local governments are required to report to police the abortion cases they handle. Mayors have also ordered bans on local clinics’ provision of modern contraception, including the birth control pill.

These issues are so politically risky for those seeking public office that the reproductive health bill has not gotten anywhere in Congress. The Church says the bill is “anti-family and anti-life”, and Cruz says it is only “for population-reduction purposes, not the improvement of life”.

Abortion is an even trickier issue. “If it faces unending opposition particularly from the Catholic church that uses abortion to defeat measures proposing access to safe family planning services, including abortion-related complications, then a separate bill on legal abortion under special circumstances faces an even more difficult future,” Padilla pointed out.

 
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