BY Mary Racelis
Growing numbers of professional and educated lay Filipino Catholics believe they can. Increasingly uneasy that the unshakeable position of the Church contradicts directly their own understandings of Philippine realities, many are actually reading the bill to see for themselves – and emerging as its supporters.
Catholic NGO workers, social workers, and social science researchers working in poor rural and urban communities overflowing with malnourished, out-of-school children and youth have particular problems with the Church position. They find it difficult to accept that poor mothers and fathers who want to avoid a fourth or fifth pregnancy or wait a few years before the next one, should be condemned for choosing reliable, contraceptive family planning methods.
One urban poor woman was asked what the Church might say about her practice of saving part of her meager earnings to buy birth control pills every month. Her reply: “Ang simbahan ba ang magpapakain sa mga anak namin? (Will the Church feed my children?)”
Then there is the deafening silence of the Church on how to respond to the thousands of poor women who undergo clandestine, unsafe abortions for lack of access to modern family planning. In 2000, 473,000 women had induced abortions, 79,000 of them winding up in hospitals from complications, and 800 leaving as corpses.
The World Health Organization estimates that this already alarming 2000 statistic may by 2008 be as high as 800,000! Yet the Church remains in denial. Its spokespersons claim that their calculations yield “only 200,000” induced abortions.
Meanwhile, desperate women eking out a meager living for four to eight children and possibly supporting an unemployed or chronically drunk husband as well, consider the prospect of another child to be unthinkable - and go for an abortion.
Safe and effective choices
The bill recognizes this reality by offering poor women safer and more effective choices for preventing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies. Because it enables women to reject the unsafe abortion route, the bill can legitimately be called anti-abortion. The Church’s position, on the other hand, poses the ultimate irony. By opposing contraceptive options for women but offering no other viable alternatives, it is in effect contributing to those 473,000 abortions.
The low priority given to women’s needs results in their appalling health status. Ten die each day, or 3,650 per year, from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes. One Filipina out of 140 faces the risk of maternal death in her lifetime. Contrast this with one in 500 for Thai women, and one in 560 for Malaysian women.
Maternal mortality rates in the Philippines are unacceptably high at 162 per 100,000 live births. The corresponding ratio for Thailand is 110 and for Malaysia 62. Skilled attendants are present at birth for 60% of Filipinas, while the comparable figures for Thai women reach 97% and Malaysian women 98 %. Buddhists and Muslims seem to do better by their women than Catholics.
Moreover, when a mother dies in labor because she has not gone for prenatal check-ups, her baby is also likely to die in the first year if not the first month of life. Surviving toddlers are similarly at risk. An estimated 10 million Filipino women incur post-partum disabilities every year owing to poor obstetric care. Class disparities come starkly to the fore as fully 96% of women with higher education receive post-natal care from a health professional, compared with only 33% of women with no education.
Comprehensive family planning services
Catholics who support the bill appreciate the accountability it demands of government in mandating as national policy specific benefits to women and families, “more particularly to the poor and needy.” Examples include mobile health care services in every Congressional district, and one emergency obstetric hospital per 500,000 population.
Midwives and skilled birth attendants must be available in every city and municipality to attend to women during childbirth in a ratio of one per 150 deliveries per year. Maternal death reviews will be conducted locally in coordination with the Department of Health and Popcom. Hospitals will handle more complex family planning procedures.
Given these and other benefits, educated Catholics feel vindicated in supporting a bill that offers women and families comprehensive health and family planning services as a matter of right and choice. Church proclamations alleging that House Bill 5043 is “anti-poor,” “anti-women,” “pro-abortion,” and “immoral” ring hollow in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary. The bill reads exactly the opposite as pro-poor, pro-women, anti-abortion, and respectful of human life.
Moreover, its provisions satisfy Catholic consciences as being compatible with the Church’s social teachings, including the sanctity of human life and the dignity of the human person, the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, integral human development, and the primacy of conscience. In this light they urge that the Church listen to them as responsible Catholic laity who offer their Church the advantage of evidenced-based approaches to the evolving needs of 21st century Philippine society.
By ceasing its attacks on the bill, allowing it to pass, and concentrating instead on monitoring implementation, the Church will convey an important point to its uneasy, increasingly critical lay members – that despite its hierarchical structure and celibate, all-male leadership, it can still respond meaningfully to the needs and aspirations of poor women and their families. At the very least, let us hope the Church resists the temptation to “shoot the messengers” who dare to articulate alternative but realistic Catholic views.
ABOUT THE AUTHORMary Racelis is a sociologist with INCITEGov, Pasig City.