by Katie Palmer
What happens to a country where there is a tight marriage between the State and the Catholic Church as well as an absence of a national population policy and nationwide inaccessibility to contraceptives, particularly among the poorest of the poor? A population crisis—much like the one seen in the contemporary Philippines.
For the past four months, I have been living and working in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. I am here on a Canadian government-funded internship working at the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA). CMA provides assistance to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and also lobbies the government to change its national policies so that a million plus citizens do not have to “choose” to migrate abroad each year in search of jobs.
Population, migration, and poverty interconnect on the ground in a national employment crisis. Simply put, there are not enough jobs to provide living wages to the vast majority of Filipinos. Therefore, every year at least one million men and women emigrate from the Philippines to secure employment abroad. And as the population continues to grow, the annual number of OFWs will continue to increase exponentially. This might not seem too terrible when compared to Sub-Saharan Africa’s AIDS catastrophe or the Greater Mekong Sub-Region’s sex trafficking crisis, but it is. OFWs experience protracted separation from their families, which often leads to anxiety and depression among all family members. Moreover, OFWs, particularly women, are vulnerable to trafficking, unpaid labor, and exploitation. This population-migration-poverty nexus will only continue to intensify if there fails to be critical state intervention, specifically in terms of population management.
As of early 2011 the country lacks a national population policy. However, the Philippine Senate is currently debating whether or not to enact a highly controversial reproductive health bill. The bill aims to guarantee universal access to contraceptive methods, provide widespread, accessible information on contraception and maternal care, and promote age-appropriate sexual education to youth in elementary and high schools.
The reproductive health bill is the source of much controversy. A recent study conducted by Pulse Asia surveyed 1200 persons across the Philippines and found that 63 percent of Filipinos, of whom the majority are liberal Catholics, support the passage of the bill, but public religious leaders are vehemently against its implementation.
Some are in favor of the bill largely because it will enable the poorest of the poor to escape the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty. “Having few children will allow the poor to invest more in education and health for their children to improve their lives when they grow up,” argues Ernesto Pernia, a professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics.
Others support the passage of the bill in large part because it is a positive step toward meeting the ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015—goals the Philippines is currently far from achieving. The Reproductive Health Bill directly touches on four of the eight MDGs: (1) promotion of gender equality; (2) reduction of infant mortality; (3) improvement of maternal health; and, (4) combating HIV-AIDS. The bill also indirectly relates to two MDGs: (1) eradication of extreme hunger and poverty; and, (2) achievement of universal primary education.Renaud Meyer, the United Nations Development Program country director for the Philippines, boldly tells me, “Let’s face it. There has been a study that if the Philippine population continues to grow at this rate, it won’t have enough resources to feed its people by 2025. Overpopulation affects Manila’s bid in attaining the MDGs because it constrains the resources for the people. The more children a couple have, the fewer children will be sent to school.”
A little over five percent of the total population in the Philippines is Muslim. According to a survey conducted by Pulse Asia, the majority of the Muslim population supports the bill because of its alignment with the teachings of Islam. “Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao [ARMM] is supportive of the reproductive health bill because it gives priority and importance to the basic unit of our society—the family,” says lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo, ARMM executive secretary.
Although the reproductive health bill is about health, rights, and sustainable human development, not all Filipinos, specifically leaders of the Catholic Church, support it. For example, while the Church supports natural means of family planning, which includes abstinence and fertility beads among women, it strongly prohibits the use of artificial means, such as birth control pills and condoms.
“Placing artificial obstacles to prevent human life from being formed and being born most certainly contradicts [the sanctity of] human life,” Archbishop Ramon Arguelles and Bishop Arturo Bastes argued at the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.
Aside from the argument that the use of condoms compromises the sanctity of human life, the Philippine Catholic Church also opposes the bill out of fear that once widespread contraception is made accessible, sexual promiscuity and abortion will likely follow: “There is no country in the world that passed the reproductive health bill that has not legalized abortion. This can be a way to legalize abortion,” says Bienvenido Abante, former Manila congressman, a Baptist, and a member of Bible Believers’ League of Morality and Democracy.
And a third reason why Philippine leaders of the Catholic Church argue against the adoption of the bill is because—from their perspective—making contraceptives available to the masses will not lift the Philippines out of poverty. Rather, they argue legislators ought to use the estimated 6 billion pesos that would be used to cover the costs of implementing the bill to build more schools and medical centers in rural areas.
In addition to religious leaders condemning the bill, there is also skepticism among some members of the general public. This small fraction of the population is pessimistic of the bill in large part because the Philippine government has yet to formulate concrete plans for the implementation of the bill. In other words, people do not have a clear sense of what ‘the bill in action’ will look like.
From what I have learned in the Philippines over the past four months, Filipino women, who are the primary caregivers in both nuclear and non-nuclear households, need access to affordable contraceptives, as well as to sexual health education. At the heart of the reproductive health bill are women’s rights as well as the rights to health and development.
Every day eleven Filipino women die from pregnancy-related complications. That is simply unacceptable. By empowering women to make informed decisions about their bodies, their reproductive health, and their families, the reproductive health bill makes a small step toward achieving gender equality.
Go Philippines go!
About the Author:
Katie Palmer was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. She recently earned a graduate degree in Geography from the University of Toronto. She earned her bachelor's degree in geography and gender studies also from the University of Toronto. In the past few years, Katie has traveled to Southeast Asia multiple times to research the effects of and responses to the flesh trade in women and children. Aside from the WIP, she has written for Gender Across Borders, Herizons, and the University of Toronto Magazine on topics relating to gender, migration, development, and women and children in prostitution.