Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Reproductive Health Bill Headache

A more recent post discussing RH (and abortion) in the PH can be read by clicking here.

Apparently for the past few years there has been a lot of hubbub in the Philippines over a proposed Reproductive Health Bill.  As a non-Filipino I never really gave it much thought, until it was brought to my attention in an email I received from a concerned man who is worried that gay rights will lead to legalised abortion via the passage of what he called the "liberal reproductive health law."  His premise was that same-sex marriage causes numerous societal problems, listing drug legalisation and abortion as examples.  He also cited Norway as an example of a country where both abortion and drugs are legal because of same-sex unions.

Honestly the argument he makes is confusing.  First, there is no evidence from any country that legalizing same-sex marriage leads to drug legalisation or other social problems.  Second, drugs are actually not legal in Norway.  He may be confusing Norway with the Netherlands, a country to the south of Scandinavia, where personal use of marijuana is legal but other drugs are not.

As far as abortion goes, it has been legal in Norway since 1979 (and in the Netherlands since 1981) -- 22 and 29 years, respectively, before same-sex marriage became legal in the two countries.  The two have no bearing upon each other; same-sex marriage did not cause abortion legalisation, nor has it caused an increase in abortion rates.

This brings us to the Philippines' controversial Reproductive Health Bill: House Bill No. 03.  Based on a reading of the full text of the bill, it seeks to promote information on and access to both natural and modern family planning methods that are medically safe and legally permissible.  It seeks to ensure an environment where both women and couples have the freedom of informed choice as to which type of family planning they choose to use, according to their needs, personal convictions, and religious beliefs.  That's the extent.

This is what all the fuss is about?  This is what is deemed as a scary, liberal, "D.E.A.T.H." (pro-death, euthanasia, abortion, two-child policy, homosexuality) bill?  Really?? 

What's strange is that some people say Europe is evil because we have abortion.  But you don't have to investigate very deeply to discover that Western European abortion rates are actually the lowest in the world.   In the Netherlands, there are nine abortions per every one-thousand pregnancies. In Norway there are roughly fifteen abortions per one-thousand pregnancies.  But did you know that the abortion rate in the Philippines is averaged at twenty-seven per every one-thousand pregnancies?  Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, yet its abortion rate exceeds even that of the United States (23:1,000).

In Norway the parliament passed a reproductive health bill of its own last year. Well it actually wasn't a new bill, it was more of an upgrade.  We've already had very liberal reproductive health policies since the 1960s.  The new Act is an initiative to cut the abortion rate in half by 2013, by making birth control pills absolutely free to girls aged 16 to 20.  The law now states that it is every young woman's reproductive health right to have access to a free supply of birth control pills, paid for by the government.

A study conducted in two Norwegian cities in 2008 showed that providing women aged 20-24 with free birth control (the pill, injection, patches, spirals, and vaginal rings) cut the abortion rate in those cities in half.  The government was so impressed that it drafted a new bill to subsidise the cost of hormonal contraceptives, with the aim of halving the national abortion rate.  The bill had wide support from all political parties and became law on the 1st of January, 2011.

I'm quite surprised that some Filipinos, including the man who emailed me, think House Bill 5043 is "liberal" and "wicked."  It looks like a very conservative and cautious bill to me.  I understand full well that the Catholic Church doesn't like the bill, and I know that H.E. Archbishop Oscar Cruz says it will "lead to the implementation of an immoral policy."  If they honestly believe that, they are within their right to say so, but I for one cannot see how giving Filipinos the basic option to decide family planning matters on their own is either liberal, wicked, or immoral.  The Filipino people are not children, and they should not be treated as such.

Of course there are other "grave concerns" surrounding the bill, including the much-feared implementation of sex education in the schools.  This seems to be the boogeyman under the bed for many conservatives.  I suppose the status quo of teenagers swapping STDs and getting pregnant is the best way to go? 

I know that if you already don't like Norway, this next bit of information will really seal the deal.  Not only do we have comprehensive sex education in the schools, but students are able to get free condoms from the school nurse anytime.  Birth control pills for girls are also available for free from school nurses, starting at age 16.  Condoms and pills are also available for free from government-run Youth Health Centres which can be found in every community.  What's more, teenagers can order condoms online for free and have them delivered to their home two days later (up to 20 condoms at a time), paid for by the Norwegian Health Department.  Imagine that ever happening in the Philippines.

But in all seriousness, there are very big differences (obviously) between the policies of our two countries. Nordic governments tend to base their policies on research rather than religion, and provide extensive public education programs using a wide range of media. The end results speak for themselves: lower teen pregnancy rates, lower STD infection rates, lower abortion rates.  Teenage abstinence-only education doesn't do that, by the way; proper sex education and access to contraceptives does.

If the goal is to protect the health, dignity, and well-being of the people, then it is high time to use methods that show results. Hopefully for the Philippines, the Reproductive Health Bill will pass, and soon.  And if it does it will at least be a step in the right direction.


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