Monday, September 22, 2008

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines has been vocal in opposing the passing of the RH Bill. The Church hierarchy has called for denial of communion and even the excommunication of members of Congress who have authored or are supportive of the proposed legislation. They have also called on the electorate to punish these legislators at the polls come 2010.

As Filipinos and as a social institution, the Church hierarchy is entitled to voice its position in matters which they deem involve morality. However the issue on reproductive health is one that is not merely moral, defined as the authoritative delineation of what is right and wrong, but also touches on what is socially just for those subsumed by such authority.

The Philippines is a republic. Its people have elected members of Congress to whom they have entrusted representation, or voice, in government. The Philippine Constitution is the highest manifestation of Filipinos’ collective voice. One of the reasons why the constitution deems the separation between Church and State “inviolable” is to remain true to the republican social contract which places sovereignty on the will of the People. Filipinos exercise their sovereign right to self-determination by electing representatives in government who are tasked to make manifest their constituents’ collective voices. As a Republic, the Philippines’ legislators, unlike the Catholic hierarchy, must also be answerable to those not of the Catholic faith.

In 2004, Filipino Muslims issued a fatwah (official ruling) which expressed support of family planning. The ruling endorses the use of “all methods of contraception” given that they are safe, legal and in accordance with the teachings and principles of their religion. This is a direct response to higher maternal and infant mortality rates in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao as compared to other regions. A genuine democracy aggregates the interests and values of the minority along with the majority.

Plurality of Catholic Voices: Unity in Diversity

The Philippines, and five others, are the only remaining Catholic countries of 42 which do not have a clear policy on population management and reproductive health.

The plurality with which the Catholic faithful practices the minutiae of religion is reflected in the varying stances of practitioners world-wide. A region with which we share cultural and historical similarities, Latin America, has long called for the need to put reproductive health issues into a developing-country context.

Immediately after its release in 1968, Latin American bishops expressed support for Pope Paul VI’s De Humanae Vitae, with some caveats that placed the Catholic faith in the context of developing countries. The Second Latin American Bishop’s Conference held that same year admitted that “population growth in Latin America exacerbated economic, social and ethical problems, such as low nuptiality, single parent families, out-of-wedlock births, and housing shortages.” By the late 1960s the Latin American Catholic Church affirmed that population growth caused unjust suffering for many families.

There is clearly no single voice speaking for all Catholics on matters of reproductive health and population management.

Disinformation in the Media Regarding ‘Abortion’

In accordance with the Constitution, RH Bill 5043 clearly upholds the sanctity of family life by continuing to deem abortion illegal.

There is no evidence to support the claims of the CBCP that Representative Lagman’s RH bill “opens a door for abortion to be recognized as a population control method.” In fact, Western Europe, where abortion is legal, experiences the lowest rate of abortion in the world with a rate of 11 per 1,000.

Whether we admit it or not, abortion is a fact in the Philippines. Based on data gathered in the late 1990s, some 473,000 abortions occurred in 2000. 1/3 of women who experience an unintended pregnancy end it in abortion. Unintended pregnancy is therefore the root cause of abortion. Preventing unplanned or unintended pregnancies by providing women access to comprehensive family planning and reproductive health services, including access to complete and accurate information, would enable women and couples to make informed decisions and, consequently, help prevent abortions and save women’s lives.

It is true that in Philippine context the Church hierarchy perhaps holds a monopoly of authority on things ‘moral’ and not-of-this-world. They are shepherds who must tend to the spiritual needs and well-being of their flock. However their flock is also made of flesh-and-bone and must subsist on material things – clothes, food, shelter, all of which are finite. It is in the dominion of the laity – to ensure that the people’s physical well-being is able to sustain spiritual well-being.

While there may be no interest groups who loudly campaign for a comprehensive national reproductive health program, some important facts indicate that Filipino families need such policies. According to the NSO's Family Planning Surveys, 15.7 percent of married women who do not want any more children or who want to wait before having their next birth currently have no access to any method of family planning.

36 out of 100 married women are already using modern family planning method. Pills are the most popular form of contraception, followed by female sterilisation or ligation. More than half of those who use contraceptives are married women aged 35 to 39 years old.

Reproductive rights are also human rights. Reproductive rights do not merely address issues on abortion. Reproductive rights address issues of maternal mortality, discrimination and a host of other gendered health issues. It is the struggle of women and men to decide on when and whether they want to have children and to have access to family planning services to achieve greater control over decisions which affect their own bodies.

There is a strong need for national legislation addressing the need for a pragmatic reproductive health policy. Legislators must answer to their mandate by enacting legislation which will lead to sustainable population and reproductive programs. Legislators are also mandated to speak on behalf of those who cannot.

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