Policy Alert: The Philippines Reproductive Health Bill
Birth control is not an option for women in the Philippines. Studies in the Philippines show that
- 10 Filipino women die daily due to pregnancy and childbirth complications
- Three out of four of these women who die are aged 15-19 years old
- Internationally, 99% of all women who die from such causes come from developing countries.
Despite this situation there are no effective measures to make birth control available to people in the Philippines. National funds are not used to buy condoms or pills, and, although local governments are technically free to buy them, many like the City of Manila will not. For years, international organizations filled the void. But that changed as USAID and other international organizations phased out their contraception programs. It might well change again with the recent changes in US policy.
Every year, a group of bold legislators led by Albay province’s Rep. Edcel Lagman proposes the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act to promote reproductive health and access to modern methods of contraception and each year it fails to pass because of fierce lobbying from conservative Catholics.
The bill aims to empower couples with the information and opportunity to plan and space their children. This will not only strengthen the family as a unit but also optimize care for children who will have more opportunities to be educated, healthy and productive 1.
According to Lagman, the bill covers
- Information and access to natural and modern family planning
- Maternal, infant and child health and nutrition
- Promotion of breast feeding
- Prevention of abortion and management of post abortion complications
- Adolescent and youth health
- Prevention and management of reproductive tract infections, HIV/AIDS and STDs
- Elimination of violence against women
- Counseling on sexuality and sexual and reproductive health
- Treatment of breast and reproductive tract cancers
- Male involvement and participation in reproductive health (RH)
- Prevention and treatment of infertility and
- RH education for the youth.
The opposition to the bill comes from the Government and church leaders who frame any discussion on reproductive health and rights in religious terms, as a battle either for or against human life. RH is more often than not, construed as abortion by them and they contend that any discussion on reproductive health including family planning will cultivate an ‘anti-life’ mentality that will eventually lead to an acceptance and even legalization of abortion. In a statement, the Pro-Life Caucus has also said that the proponents of RH were silent on the adverse effects of contraceptives.
In lieu of modern contraception which the church considers as against its principles, the government and church authorities promote what they call ‘natural’ family planning. Women are advised to purchase a thermometer, monitor their cycle, and abstain from sex on all but their least-fertile days.
As a consequence the country’s population is growing at a rate of about 2.3% per year and poor families are growing fastest. The Government therefore needs to take adequate measures (not limited to wage increases, tax breaks and food subsidies) to meet the needs of the people.
Advocates for the bill, however, maintain there is nothing anti-Filipino about birth control. Supporters of the bill represent multi-sectoral groups including church members who recognize the significance of the bill for the overall reproductive health of women. Information and services on reproductive health are needed to enable people to make informed and intelligent decisions that will: save women’s lives, facilitate having children that parents can provide for, prepare the youth to handle responsibilities that go with having relationships, and empower men to realize and use the various options available to them in planning their families. They further contend that the bill if brought into execution will lower the number of unwanted pregnancies and therefore the rate of abortion by as much as 85%.
As shown by the 2004 Pulse Asia survey:
- 86% of respondents support candidates with programs for women’s health
- 82% support candidates who are in favor of couples’ free choice of family planning methods
- 82% consider candidates supportive of a law on population as worthy of their votes
- 83% favor candidates who support allocating funds for family planning.
Filipino teens get a higher exposure to sex from the media including the internet, magazines, TV shows, movies etc than decades ago and yet there is no corresponding increase in knowledge and skills on how to handle the information from the media. Information on sexuality and options for contraception must be made available to people in general, and young people in particular, as peer pressure and lack of information often leads to teen pregnancies which entail risks of inadequate pre-natal care, risk of abortion and fetal deaths as well as risk of acquiring cervical cancer. Although abortion is illegal in the Philippines, there is a high rate of abortions which are backdoor, unreliable, and therefore, risky.
An increasing number of local government units are also stepping up to address this need as evidenced by the passage of RH ordinances in Aurora province, Sulu, Olongapo, and Quezon City to name a few. Moreover, there are units that are presently processing their own RH ordinances. The Commission on Population and the Family Planning Organization of the Philippines, (which maintains community health care clinics that provide reproductive health services, including legal and medically-safe family planning methods and maternal and child care services) has also urged members of the media to increase its stake in reproductive health and responsible parenthood advocacy following an increase in population.
Besides the national legislature, RH bills have been proposed by several local governments, and several have passed, starting with pioneers like Aurora province and, most recently, Quezon City. That last bill’s passage was particularly tumultuous, with camps for and against it aware that Quezon City is the country’s largest city and a trend-setter.
In the House of Representatives, the reproductive health bill has been endorsed by four committees, namely the Committee on Health, the Committee on Population and Family Relations, the Committee on Appropriations and the Committee on Rules. As of November 2008, it already had 111 authors. It has also been endorsed by 11 government agencies such as the Departments of Health, Social Welfare & Development, Education, and Interior and Local Government, the National Economic Development Authority, and the Commission on Higher Education, among others.
However, it is facing staunch opposition from at least 75 members in the House and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. The bill’s authors have written to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, asking for a dialogue. Position papers in support of the bill have been written as well, notably from professors of the University of the Philippines School of Economics, the Ateneo De Manila University, and 140 Student Councils around the country.
The struggle for the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill in Congress goes on. The Reproductive Health Advocacy Network had also initiated an online petition to gather one million signatures to show solidarity and support for the campaign to the House of Representatives and the Senate. The petition is available at:
1 The full text of the bill is available at