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Monday, July 21, 2008

Catholicism and reproductive rights—Clara Rita Padilla

Many predominantly Catholic countries around the world allow access to modern contraceptives, emergency contraception and even safe and legal abortion. The state of Philippine law on reproductive rights is mere blind adherence to our Spanish colonial past.

It's time to state the truth about Catholicism and reproductive rights in the Philippines and the rest of the world.

I challenge the bishops of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and other religious fundamentalists to go to the poorest communities in Tondo and interview the women there to see first-hand how having ten children impacts the health and lives of women and their families.

I have just visited Tondo twice these past three weeks and I interviewed poor women who have borne the brunt of the restriction of access to family planning information, supplies and services due to the Atienza policy (EO 003 Series of 2000) and as a consequence had 3-10 children. The women were either outrightly denied access to family planning supplies and services or were denied access to information to effectively control their fertility.

The women, after years of being deprived access to family planning services by clinics and hospitals attached to Manila City, finally decided to undergo ligation. Last July 11, I also saw scores of women who filled up the Tondo Sports Coliseum in the heat of the day to eagerly wait for their turn to get family planning counseling and services.

The laws of predominantly Catholic countries around the world belie the claim of the CBCP that restricting access to contraception and even access to safe and legal abortion is against the Catholic religion. Many predominantly Catholic countries around the world allow access to modern contraceptives, emergency contraception and even safe and legal abortion. The state of Philippine law on reproductive rights is mere blind adherence to our Spanish colonial past.

Freedom of conscience

Catholic women around the world--including more than 60 percent of Catholic women in Trinidad, Tobago and Botswana, and 28 percent in the Philippines--have used contraceptive methods, showing that Catholic women exercise freedom of conscience.

Predominantly Catholic countries such as Chile and Peru have the same constitutional protection of the life of the woman and the unborn from conception as the Philippines and they allow access to emergency contraceptive pills.

Other predominantly Catholic countries such as Argentina and Belgium even make emergency contraceptive pills available without prescription. The World Health Organization defines emergency contraception (EC) a method of preventing pregnancy. It says that EC does not interrupt pregnancy and thus is not considered a method of abortion.

Religiously fundamental policies are encouraged by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration. President Arroyo has taken a “natural-family-planning-only” stance to family planning services. Thus, many women are denied access to modern contraceptives such as oral contraceptives, injectables, IUDs, and tubal ligation.

For example, Executive Order No. 003, issued by former Manila Mayor Jose “Lito” Atienza in 2000 prohibits public health clinics and hospitals from providing any family planning services besides natural family planning. While modern family planning services are still permitted in private health institutions, due to many women’s limited resources they are effectively banned from receiving such services.

Public health crisis

As a result of Executive Order No. 003 and similar policies implemented throughout the country, the Philippines faces a health crisis that would only be worsened if the Philippine government does not enact a national law providing access to information and reproductive health care services including sexuality education and adolescent access to reproductive health information and services. The continued delay in the passage of a national law on reproductive health care will further compound a major public health crisis in the country.”

In fact, in an oral statement delivered at the United Nations adoption of the Philippine Universal Periodic Review Report last June 10, I, along with many national and international organizations urged the Philippine government to reject the recommendation by the Holy See in the Working Group Report which calls for, “ …the protection of children in the womb….”

I said that the acceptance of this recommendation by the Philippines will not only be contrary to international human rights law but will further compound a major public health crisis in the country involving half a million unsafe abortion procedures every year, 79,000 hospital admissions for complications from unsafe abortion and 800 deaths.
Twelve percent of maternal deaths in the Philippines are due to unsafe abortion. The latest Philippine statistics on abortion also show the following profile of women who induce abortion: nine in ten women are married or in a consensual union; more than half have at least three children; two-thirds are poor; nearly 90% are Catholic.

Safe and legal abortion

The United Nations treaty monitoring bodies have recognized access to safe and legal abortion as a matter of women’s rights to life, health, non-discrimination and dignity. Their position is based on principled interpretations of human rights norms, commitments contained in global consensus documents and evidence of the impact of unsafe abortion on women’s health.

It is pertinent to note that during the August 2006 periodic review of the Philippines, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), urged the government to “consider the problem of unsafe abortion as a matter of high priority” and “consider reviewing the laws relating to abortion with a view to removing punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion and provide them with access to quality services for the management of complications arising from unsafe abortions and to reduce women’s maternal mortality rates in line with the Committee’s general recommendation 24 on women and health and the Beijing Platform for Action.”

The CEDAW Committee has rightly noted that the lack of access to contraceptive methods and family planning services, as well as restrictive abortion laws, tend to coincide with the prevalence of unsafe abortions that contributes to high rates of maternal mortality.

The critical link between unsafe abortion and maternal mortality has also been a matter of concern for the Human Rights Committee, the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee, and the Children’s Rights Committee. They have consistently called upon states with criminal abortion laws to review their laws as a means to ensuring women’s basic human rights.

The figures around the world reveal that criminalizing abortion does not eliminate abortions; it only makes it dangerous for women who undergo clandestine and unsafe abortion.

No one wants women to be in a circumstance where they have no choice but to seek an abortion. But the reality is that unequal power relations prevent women from having control over their bodies and their reproductive decisions.

Spain, Colombia, Mexico, Poland

The social justice implications of restrictive abortion laws has been recognized in many predominantly Catholic countries around the world, including Spain, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, and Hungary (whose constitution protects life from conception but permits abortion up to 12 weeks of gestation).

Recent abortion liberalizations occurred in Colombia, Mexico City (legalized abortion in the first trimester without restriction in April 2007) and Portugal (allows abortion up to 10 weeks of pregnancy).

As can be seen, Spain has liberalized its laws to allow abortion and yet we are left to contend with our old colonial laws. Also, in the example of Hungary, the constitutional provision protecting the life of woman and the unborn from conception even allows access to safe and legal abortion.

The ‘abortion scare’ that is being espoused by fundamentalist groups is detrimental to the very lives, health, and well-being of Filipino women because it advocates the harmful.

State practice, as shown by the laws and jurisprudence of countries worldwide, reflects a growing consensus that government’s duty to protect a woman's life should take precedence over their interest in protecting an unborn fetus.

Furthermore, in the Philippines the full range of contraceptive methods is unavailable, which directly contributed to the high rate of unwanted pregnancy and pushes women to resort to unsafe abortions that in many cases result in death. The obligation to provide access to information and family planning methods as a means of reducing abortion has been recognized by the CEDAW Committee and the Beijing and Cairo Conferences consensus documents.

Despite international human rights standards that protect information and access to family planning and contraception, the religious fundamentalist stance being towed by the Philippine government is depriving Filipino women access to the full range of contraceptive methods.

The Philippine government must ensure that international human rights standards and norms are upheld in the Philippines.

The author, a lawyer, is executive director of EnGendeRights, Inc. Email:; Blog: