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Reproductive myths, dangerous half-truths, and facts

Published in: philSTAR.com

Throughout the Philippines in March there have been vibrant marches and celebrations for National Women's Month. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines has also joined in with marches and protests of its own, but unfortunately these are to protest a proposed law that would actually provide a better life for women. The Bishops' animus is directed at the Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Bill 2011 (RH Bill) - a bill which in fact seeks to open doors for a better future and life for Filipino women and girls. 

In January this year, the CBCP published a letter strongly opposing the RH Bill and mounted a signature campaign against the proposed law. They oppose the bill because, amongst other things, it contains provisions on family planning and sex education.

The Bishops' stance is disappointing because the RH Bill contains a lot more than just the contested provisions. Some of its provisions, if passed, will put the Philippines on the global map as a developing country leading the way with legally mandated protections for women's health, their reproductive rights and indeed, their lives.

The RH Bill seeks to provide pro bono reproductive health services for indigent women and maximum health insurance benefits for life-threatening reproductive health conditions, including reproductive tract cancers. It aims to create a network of mobile health care services and obliges public health facilities to conduct reviews of cases in which women died as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. These provisions should be fully supported because they will save many women from unnecessary illness and death. The RH Bill specifically rejects coercive policies, stating that there shall be no population targets, and safeguards families from punitive actions based on the number of children they have.

And let's be clear: the lives of Filipino women are at stake. The 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey in the Philippines shows that nearly 10 percent of girls between ages 15 and 19 are already mothers or are pregnant with their first child. And when married Filipino women were asked whether they wanted to have any more children, 54 percent of them said they did not want more children and another 19 percent said they wanted to be able to space their births by at least two years.

The poorest women had more than twice as many children as women who live in the wealthiest households even though the poorer women said they did not want to have as many children. And tragically, many of these poor women witnessed their children dying- the under-age-5 mortality rate among the poor in the Philippines is nearly four times that of the rich, and children born within two years of each other have high rates of infant mortality. 

Restricting women's access to modern contraceptive methods does not promote abstinence, fewer pregnancies, or so-called "pro-life" decisions. The consequences are invariably adverse for women, especially the poor. The Manila City regulation discouraging the use of modern contraceptives, for instance, had a disproportionately negative impact on poor women, many of whom had to borrow money to buy contraceptives at a higher cost from private facilities after they became unavailable in public health facilities.

This disproportionate impact on the poor was not an aberration. In Argentina, where there was similar opposition to contraceptives, many public health facilities refused to provide sterilization services for women who sought them. But women who had money turned to private hospitals for the same services. The poor suffered. Restricting affordable reproductive health services through the public health system was discriminatory in effect. It pushed the poor over the edge.

What is most disturbing about the Bishops' letter and their nation-wide campaign against the RH Bill is the use of age-old myths about reproductive health. The myths and dangerously incomplete and misleading information that have been used against the RH Bill need to be corrected and should not be allowed to alarm those who are yet to engage fully with the debate around the bill. A few examples of these: ""Safe sex to prevent HIV/AIDS is false propaganda." "Contraceptives may cause cancer." "Contraceptives are hazardous to a woman's health."

The Bishops' invocation of myths and half-truths illustrates the urgent need for a publicly funded campaign to educate the people of the Philippines about reproductive health. The RH Bill provides for this, to enable everyone, including the church, to ask the right questions, seek accurate information, and make informed reproductive health choices. 

Aruna Kashyap is the Asia women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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