Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Unpacking Choice and Reproductive Rights

Why is the reproduction of life political?

Fundamentalists rest easy on grounding reality on something solid, eternal, unchanging. There is security in anchoring one’s view of the world on basic principles from which spring beliefs about who we are and what we ought and ought not to do. Once these fundamentals become shaky, it is feared that identities (who we are) and morals that guide us (what we ought and ought not to do) become shaky as well.

The Reproductive Health bill is a landmark policy shift that gives women control over their body’s reproductive functions through state resources. It is revolutionary, and thus feared, on two accounts.

First, should the bill make it through Congress and approved by the Executive, the public domain will have acknowledged that reproduction, i.e. the creation of life, is not a completely private matter between mother and father. Motherhood confers to women a unique bodily function. It is often argued that because we have a uterus – ‘nature’ (i.e. God) has given us an immutable identity – that of bearing children. In other words, because we have a uterus, our biological make-up forever cements us in the mold of reproducing life. True, motherhood is a gift and fertility is revered in many cultures around the world. One then wonders why this matter is intensely political in a large and differentiated society such as ours.

Those opposing the bill have argued that the State should not dictate upon families the number of children they want to bear. Advocates have answered the bill makes no such imposition. Indeed, it does not. The bill, however, gives women a last say on what happens to their bodies. It is revolutionary in that it wrests control over the reproduction of life away from ‘nature’ (i.e. God) and men. The sexual act need not naturally result to pregnancy. This is why anti-RH bill people claim that our society will develop a ‘contraceptive culture’ and that the young will become more ‘promiscuous.’ The image of the ‘loose’ woman offends many. This moral guidepost says women ought not to engage in sexual acts with any man of her choosing in any context. The sexual act is reserved for married heterosexual partners, because, fundamentalists argue, the sole function of sex is procreation. Unpacking this moral guidepost unearths many donts and hidden punishments:

1. Only men and women can have a union blessed by the most powerful institutions in our society – the State and the Church.
2. Marriage confers rights and protection to this coupling that is denied to any other combination (men-men, women-women).
3. Sexual intercourse should occur only in a marital context. To do otherwise paints one, especially women, as immoral and therefore undesirable.
4. Sexual intercourse’s sole purpose is to reproduce life.

Unpacking all that, we get to the heart of the matter – how to control and harness reproductive labor. At the top of this structure of control are the State and Church. Their powers to constrain individual behavior discipline and order human beings in such a way as to benefit both. The State must have a last say on all things public, i.e. what concerns all of us, and the Church on all things moral, i.e. what we should and should not do.

Between these two at the top of the pyramid however, the State is a much more democratic, more participatory and less opaque structure of power. We do not get to elect who mans the Church. We do not get to argue and debate over theological matters. We do not get to negotiate moral matters as per the Catholic hierarchy.

Secondly, the bill is revolutionary (thus feared) because it pierces the sanctity of the ‘family unit.’ The Catholic Church and other fundamentalist organizations jealously guard its sanctity. They often argue that the State (or the public domain) should have no say about reproductive matters. The same argument can also be made for domestic violence. What goes on between husband and wife is a private matter. What goes on between parent and child is also a private matter. But the so-called sanctity of the domestic domain cloaks power hierarchies within the family unit. This traces back to the history of marriage as an institution where the wife is the husband’s property. Parenthood also confers ownership of children. To acknowledge that wives and children have rights independent of the societal unit to which they belong unveils the cloak of the family’s ‘sanctity.’ Women are individuals who are more than the sum of their mammary glands and uterus. Children are individuals who are more than the result of reproductive labor.

This is why the Church and other fundamentalists have fought tooth and nail against the Reproductive Health bill. It unravels the order of the ‘natural,’ that is, it unravels the order of God.

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