Breaking the silence
It’s unfortunate, one women’s rights campaigner memorably noted, that those who will fight to the death for the rights of the unborn suddenly lose interest once the fetus becomes a baby. As for the mother’s own rights, well, they are often not even in the equation in any discussion of abortion and contraception in this country.
A New York-based group called the Center for Reproductive Rights has released its first comprehensive report on the impact of the ban on abortion in the Philippines. In Forsaken Lives: The Harmful Impact of the Philippine Criminal Abortion Ban, the organization examined the legal framework of the local ban and conducted interviews with Filipino women who felt that their rights were violated by the government’s indiscriminate prohibition, regardless of the circumstances of pregnancy.
“The Philippines government has created a dire human rights crisis in the country,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center. “Hundreds of thousands of women in the country resort to unsafe abortion to protect their health, their families and their livelihood. Yet, the government sits idly by refusing to tackle the issue or reform the policies that exacerbate it.”
“It’s time to break the silence around abortion in the Philippines and for the human rights community to put pressure on the government to decriminalize abortion and immediately improve the medical care that women receive,” she added.
In its report, the group noted that, far from preventing abortions, the ban has only succeeded in endangering the lives of 560,000 women who seek to end their pregnancies every year in this country. Because abortion is illegal in the Philippines, women have had to resort to “crude and extremely painful methods such as intense abdominal massages by traditional midwives, inserting catheters into the uterus, medically unsupervised consumption of Cytotec [an abortion-inducing drug] and ingesting herbs and other concoctions sold by street vendors,” it said.
Of these women, the report said, fully 90,000 women who seek illegal abortions suffer complications and 1,000 die from them annually. And because of the influence of the Catholic Church, which has steadfastly kept the ban in place regardless of the circumstances of pregnancy—including risks to the mother’s life and health, if she is a victim of rape or incest or in cases of fetal impairment—those numbers aren’t expected to change anytime soon.
The report notes that the Philippines remains one of a handful of countries all over the world that does not allow abortion regardless of the circumstances of pregnancy. And because women will seek abortions whether they are legal or not, the government is violating their rights by continuing to impose such a comprehensive ban.
“[T]he government violates their rights by failing to address [the ban’s] devastating effects,” the Center said. “[Our] investigation found that the Philippines law has not prevented women from seeking abortion; instead, abortion has been driven underground, making it extremely unsafe and potentially deadly for women.”
And when women’s lives are endangered by complications stemming from their decision to seek an abortion, they encounter humiliation, abuse and even apathy from medical professionals who are supposed to save their lives. “[T]he law has created an environment of judgment and stigma that women who seek legal medical treatment for abortion-related complications are often harassed and abused by healthcare providers or the quality of care is substandard,” it said. “Medical professionals are either emboldened to perpetrate abuses against women or deprived of their ability to provide their patients with quality, humane care as required under their ethical obligations.”
And when medical professionals do try to help women who have had illegal abortions, the report noted, they risk censure from their own peers and colleagues. “Many healthcare professionals interviewed… stated that professionals who sympathize with women who have had abortions feel stigmatized by their peers because abortion is a crime under law. Interviewees attributed the stigma to the law, personal religious values and the Catholic hierarchy’s propaganda against abortion,” it said.
Even medical students do not want to talk about abortion because “[t]hey are afraid of being labeled as wanting to perform abortions.” “The stigma has proliferated within the health system. This is spread by talking about and condemning doctors who do it [perform abortions],” it said.
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It comes as no surprise that the unconscionable number of Filipino women endangered by illegal and unsafe abortion methods has been traced by the report to the lack of access to contraceptive methods. Citing a 2008 study, the report said 1.9 million pregnancies a year—54 percent of all pregnancies of women between the ages of 15 and 49—are unintended.
“Twenty-nine percent of all women at risk for unintended pregnancy in the Philippines —around 3 million women—who want to avail themselves of contraception cannot obtain it,” the report said. “In some regions, the occurrence of unintended pregnancies is as high as 60 percent.”
And successive governments’ political preference for so-called natural family planning over modern methods of contraception (a concession to the hierarchy of the dominant Roman Catholic Church), “has resulted in a dramatic reduction in access to contraceptive supplies and information.”
“There is a strong correlation between unsafe abortion and contraceptive non-use,” the report said. “One major study shows that more than 50 percent of women who have terminated a pregnancy were not using any method of contraception when they became pregnant.”
And despite the best intentions of congressmen pushing for state-supported contraception and sex-education programs, the lack of support from previous administrations has ensured that such initiatives do not overhaul laws prohibiting the use of government funds for such purposes. Whether renewed attempts to pass the controversial reproductive health bill in this Congress will succeed is really a matter of conjecture at this point.
Still, the report concludes that it is the poor who are hit hardest by the government’s conscious efforts to make it difficult for women to have access to contraception. “More than 50 percent of women with an unmet need for contraception are poor,” it said.
Perhaps, when it is done obsessing with appointments and other such minutiae of governance, the new Aquino administration will be able to focus on the debate on contraception and abortion, for the sake of the women who make up fully half of the Philippine population. Judging by statements he made during the previous campaign, it is difficult to say if the new President is in favor of state-sponsored contraception and sex education programs or not.
Of course, whichever course of action it decides to take, the government will have to factor in the opposition of the Church. “The Catholic hierarchy plays a completely inappropriate role opposing any changes to existing laws on abortion and family planning and, as we see from this important report, women die as a result,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “In our work in the Philippines, we have seen and heard from Catholics who reject the influence of the bishops and support access to more comprehensive reproductive health services.”
Here’s hoping that the new administration realizes who its real constituency is, when it considers the population debate.
This article originally appeared in the Manila Standard Today.