The Philippine government has taken a serious step backward in its obligation to protect maternal health, reduce infant mortality, and prevent the spread of HIV.

An NGO health worker holds contraceptive pills during a family planning session with housewives availing free pills in Tondo, Manila August 6, 2012. 

Last week, the Philippine Congress eliminated funding in the 2016 national budget for contraception, cutting vital support for lower-income Filipinos who rely on state-provided contraceptive services for protection from sexually transmitted infections, and for safe birth-spacing and family planning. Research published in 2013 indicates that up to 50 percent of pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended, largely due to lack of availability of modern contraceptive services.

The budget cut threatens to roll back hard-fought gains in maternal health and reductions in infant mortality over the past decade made possible by government-subsidized or free contraceptive services. The United Nations Population Fund has criticized the congressional action as a threat to “the basic human right to health as well as the right to reproductive choices.” It also risks exacerbating the country’s HIV crisis. According to UNAIDS, the Philippines is “one of only a handful of countries at risk of a full-blown AIDS epidemic.” The budget cut also undermines provisions of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law that guarantee government distribution of free contraceptives and access to reproductive health services at government hospitals.

Congress’s slashing of the budget for contraception is a victory for elements in the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines that have bitterly opposed the free contraceptive services. That opposition has included false claims about the safety and reliability of contraceptive methods such as condoms.

International human rights law ensures access to condoms and related HIV prevention services as part of the right to the highest attainable standard of health. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified by the Philippines, obligates governments to take steps “necessary for ... the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic ... diseases,” including sexually transmitted diseases. Under the covenant, the Philippine government must progressively realize the right to health to the maximum of its available resources.

The administration of President Benigno Aquino III demonstrated political courage when it promoted the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law in 2012 in the face of furious opposition from groups willing to sacrifice women’s rights and the right to health on specious justifications of morality. Congress has pandered to those forces, betraying the government’s commitments to those rights and the vital role they play in protecting women’s lives and health. Aquino should press Congress to immediately restore those funds or be held accountable for the suffering that their ill-conceived actions incur.