Asia-Pacific Journalism Report – By Michael Sergel
The Philippines Supreme Court has delayed a reproductive health bill that has been decades in the making.
The controversial law – to give Filipino women access to sexual education, subsidised contraception, family planning and prenatal care – will be reheard by the court in June.
Auckland law student and Pacific Scoop contributor Cameron Walker, who recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the Philippines, says the proposed legislation has proved divisive in the country.
But the Gabriela Women’s Party’s Jang Mone Hernandez says reproductive health should never be about population control.
Amnesty International’s Grant Bayldon says access to reproductive healthcare is a universal human right, and activist Amie Dural says it is just one of many women’s rights that needs to be addressed.
Reproductive and sexual health is a complex issue being dealt with by diverse Asia Pacific communities, according to Family Panning International’s Sami Subramaniam.
New Zealand Aids Foundation‘s Dr Jason Meyers says it is an issue that needs to be approached from a strong human rights framework focused on access, openness and acceptance.
Michael Sergel reports on the complex issue of reproductive health and contraception in the Philippines – and how it is being dealt with across the Asia Pacific.
MICHAEL SERGEL: It’s one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and the Philippines is deeply divided on a Reproductive Health Bill. The draft sexual education and healthcare law was pushed through by President Benigno Aquino in December, but the Supreme Court has suspended it until after May midterm elections.
Under a 1968 edict, the Catholic Church opposes reproductive health and many villages and hospitals ban contraception.
Filipino and East Timorese women have twice as many children and are over 30 times more likely to die during childbirth than their Australian counterparts.
World boxing champion and Senator Manny Pacquiao is supporting church doctrine, while Broadway star Leah Salonga says religious rhetoric silences the death of women and children.
Law student and activist Cameron Walker has witnessed the division first hand.
CAMERON WALKER: It was a very intense debate on both sides. Both pro the RH bill and others saying it was going to be a terrible thing.
MS: Mr Walker says the open dialogue does not mean free speech has been established under President Aquino.
CS: Unfortunately, the political killings have continued, there still seems to be a climate of impunity.
MS: But Mr Walker says the upper Senate’s party list system and political culture is dynamic, brave and unpredictable.
CS: There was a real aim to make the democracy more genuine. Party list groups seem to be a lot more vibrant – and a lot more about fighting for a change. We’ve seen over the last 30 years there can sometimes be very dramatic changes.
MS: The country’s largest contraception distributor – Phil Harvey’s DKT Philippines – is founded on the idea that condoms and pills are marketable commodities and population control is a pressing humanitarian concern. But Mr Harvey funds his pro-condom message through his Adam & Eve porn studio, which staunchly defends its right to make condom-free films and promote non-contraception sex in western countries.
For Jang Monte Hernandez – the Gabriela Women’s Party public information officer – that hypocrisy is part of the problem. She says giving Filipino women cheap condoms and pills to stop them having children is different from giving them reproductive healthcare for their own wellbeing.
Activist Amie Dural says many Catholic groups support Gabriela’s message against rape, violence, legal discrimination and lack of reproductive healthcare. And Amnesty International – an organisation with predominantly Catholic members – supports the RH law, according to New Zealand executive director Grant Bayldon.
GRANT BAYLDON: While the law doesn’t have everything we’d like to have it, we still believe it’s an historic milestone for the Philippines – especially for the poor and people in rural areas who have the worst access to healthcare. Reproductive health rights are basic human rights
MS: The Philippines exists at a cultural crossroads. The debate around reproduction reflects Asian condom anxiety, American-style conservative morality and broader discussion across the mostly Christian Pacific.
Sami Subramaniam – the director of Family Planning International, part of the Asia Pacific Alliance – says reproductive health is complex but important issue.
The RH Index – which the organisation uses – considers rates of chlamydia, adolescent pregnancy, maternal death and infant mortality.
It also takes account of female schooling, modern contraceptive use, marriage age, and access to safe abortion and midwife services.The Philippines Ministry of Health attributes its record-high HIV rates in January to unprotected group sex between men – and the New Zealand Aids Foundation spokesman Jason Meyers says access to contraception and openness around sexuality is also essential to limiting the spread of HIV and STIs.
JASON MEYERS: Adopting a human rights framework is something we’re trying to push, although its very difficult to capture the kind of country-level challenges and nuances.
MS: While the reproduction discussion continues across the Pacific, the Philippines Supreme Court will decide where it stands on the RH law in June.
Michael Sergel is a student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.