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Friday, August 01, 2008

Wake up call for Filipinos

Manila Times
Sunday, July 27, 2008

By Lisi Owen

I arrived in Manila to intern with EnGendeRights, a women's legal NGO, almost 10 weeks ago. As I'm preparing to return to the US next week, I'd like to offer my thoughts on reproductive health policy in the Philippines. My departure conveniently coincides with the CBCP's recent vow to vehemently oppose the reproductive health bill pending in the House of Representatives as part of its "pro-life" stance on family planning, so this letter is all the more appropriate.

As I've never spent a significant amount of time in a developing country, living in the Philippines has been an enlightening experience for me in many ways. One thing I've learned is that whenever I think to myself, "It can't be that bad," it turns out that it can be that bad, and might be even worse than I can even imagine. That is certainly the case with the reproductive health (RH) policy here.

Before I left the US I Googled "Philippine reproductive health policy," and hits about "natural family planning" (NFP) came up. Since when I hear "natural family planning" I think nineteenth century, and since I've never known anyone who actually thought NFP was a legitimate method of preventing pregnancy, I of course didn't believe that NFP-only was seriously the position of the Philippine government on family planning. And of course I thought to myself, "It couldn't be that bad."

But it is that bad, and yes, even worse than I could have imagined. The Philippines is in the dark ages of reproductive health. "Withdrawal" is not a method of family planning; it is how adolescents who don't know how to use a condom end up dropping out of high school to raise a baby at age 16 and even end up having three to four children by age 20.

I have a staunchly Catholic friend in the US with whom I shared all the recent news articles articulating the CBCP's position and vow to oppose the RH bill, and his response was that Filipino Catholics need to "wake up." Spain, Belgium and other Catholic countries have woken up and changed their laws on contraception, and even abortion, so why is the Philippines still sleeping?

I have seen 30-year-old women being taught how to use a condom. When I tell Filipino friends that I work for a pro-choice NGO, they ask their friends whether they are "pro-contraception." I have seen women begging, pleading for ways to prevent future pregnancies, to end their families' suffering.There is no excuse for this kind of ignorance and primitive mindset about reproductive health, and the misery it imposes on a rapidly growing Filipino population.

In response to the Church's so-called "pro-life" position, I have this to say: Life is more than the possibility of a fertilized egg. Life is children living in pushcarts on the sidewalk, wearing no pants. Life is women whorisk death every time they get pregnant, but continue to do so because their husbands beat them when they refuse sex in the name of "natural family planning." Life is sitting on your front step waiting to die, because you're that miserable, and have nothing else to do.

If the Church is pro-life, then I ask this of the bishops: How do you justify the suffering you cause? This is not a matter of the Church or the government sitting idly by and allowing people to suffer, but an active promotion of misery, and it is wrong.

I recognize the American imperialism that has preceded me in the Philippines, and how that might influence your opinion of my views. But before you dismiss me as another American trying to impose my heathenish, western views on a country that's seen enough outsiders meddling in its business, let me clarify my position: It is one of choice. If you want to practice natural family planning with your partner, that is your prerogative. If you want to capitalize on the benefits of scientific progress to control your own reproductive health, that is your prerogative as well.

It is not, however, the prerogative of the government to impose its own archaic, paternalistic religious views on the suffering people of a nation, (in violation of both the Philippine Constitution and international law, I might add) such that they are stripped of their power of autonomous
decision-making. That, my good Filipino friends, is dictatorship.

[Lisi Owen is a legal intern at EnGendeRights, Inc. and secretary, LawStudents for Reproductive Justice, University of Denver Sturm College ofLaw. Her email address is]