Issue focus: “The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012”.

On April 9th 2014, after more than a year deliberating the constitutionality of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (widely known as the “RH Bill”), the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the bill ending a fourteen year struggle for supporters of the Bill.

Supporters of the RH Bill celebrate in Quezon City after congress passed the RH Bill (8).

Supporters of the RH Bill celebrate in Quezon City after congress passed the RH Bill (8).

The main deliberation before the Supreme Court was whether the bill violates a 1987 constitutional guarantee of protection for ‘the life of the unborn from conception’ [1]. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, and it is estimated that each year, up to 4,500 women die from pregnancy related complications, and that there are 800,000 unintended births and 475,000 illegal abortions each year [2]. Whilst the RH Bill does not legalise abortion, it does legalise post abortion medical care.

The RH Bill aims to guarantee universal access to methods and information on birth control and maternal care and “enable couple and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information and means to carry out their decisions” [3].

The RH Bill mandates sexual and reproductive health education in government schools, requires public health workers to receive family planning training, recognises a women’s right to post-abortion care in hospitals, and mandates free and universal access to contraception at government health centres through a family planning program that fully subsidises modern contraceptives under government health insurance [4].

However, the Supreme Court struck down a number of provisions in the RH Law, including a provision allowing minors access to birth control without parental consent (parental consent will be required for minors seeking medical attention even if they have previously been pregnant or had a miscarriage), requirements that religious healthcare facilities tell non-emergency patients about contraceptive options, and penalties for health care providers who refuse information about contraceptives in non-emergency situations on the grounds of religious beliefs [5]. Spousal consent for women in non-life threatening circumstances will be required to access reproductive health care [4].

The RH Bill also makes specific mention of access to SRH services for people with disabilities, stating “the cities and municipalities shall endeavor that barriers to reproductive health service for people with disabilities are obliterated” [3] (RH Bill, Section 18). This is a welcome position, as early W-DARE findings highlight a range of barriers to SRH services experienced by women with disability in Quezon City and Ligao City.

Supporters of the RH Bill argue that providing poor families better access to contraceptives would substantially lower the birthrate and reduce the number of unsafe abortions. The Philippines has a birthrate of 3.54, one of the highest in Southeast Asia [6]. Public health and women’s rights advocates highlight the urgent need to provide free comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services to the poor – more than a quarter of the population lives on the equivalent of $A 0.62 per day [6]. Opponents of the bill argue that upholding the bill is the first step on a slippery slope which will inevitably lead to divorce and the legalization of abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage [1].

The decision to uphold the bill can be viewed as a major step towards upholding the separation of church and state in the Philippines, where the Catholic Church has a significant and enduring influence, counting over 80% of the population of 100 million people as its members [6]. However, high levels of public support for the RH Bill indicate a growth in less-conservative views amongst Filipinos. A survey conducted in 2012 by the Social Weather Stations polling group indicated that about 84% of Filipinos agreed that the government should provide free family planning options such as contraceptives and that 72% were ‘in favor’ of the RH Bill [6].

Debate around the RH Bill was a heated and emotional issue, with polarised advocacy and prominent public awareness campaigns. As such, ‘reproductive health’ is now directly associated with the Bill and with modern contraception/safe abortion. This can be a challenging context for W-DARE that takes a more holistic view of reproductive health, based on the Ten Elements of the Philippine Reproductive Health Program [7].

However increased government attention to the SRH of people with disabilities, and awareness of the SRH needs and issues faced by women with disability, could facilitate a more supportive and enabling environment for W-DARE interventions in Phase 2 of the project.

References:

1. Philippines reproductive-health law tests power of Catholic Church as it lobbies Supreme Court. Tom Hundley. The Washington Post. 17/06/2013.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/philippines-health-law-tests-power-of-catholic-church/2013/06/16/36bc3bdc-d36a-11e2-8cbe-1bcbee06f8f8_story.html

2. Association for Women in Development. Philippines Supreme Court Upholds Historic Reproductive Health Bill. 10/04/2014. http://www.awid.org/Library/Philippines-Supreme-Court-Upholds-Historic-Reproductive-Health-Law

3. The RH Law (Republic Act No. 10354). The RH Bill Resource Page. http://rhbillresourcepage.wordpress.com/the-rh-law-republic-act-no-10354/

4. Philippine Supreme Court Upholds Historic Reproductive Health Law. Centre for Reproductive rights. 08/04/2014. http://reproductiverights.org/en/press-room/Philippine-Supreme-Court-Upholds-Historic-Reproductive-Health-Law%20

5. Court Ruling on Philippines RH Bill met with mixed responses. 08/04/2014. http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/court-ruling-on-philippines-rh-bill-met-with-mixed-responses/

6. . SC: RH law constitutional. Tetch Torres-Tupas. Agence France-Presse. Inquirer.net. 09/04/2014. http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/592699/sc-waters-down-rh-law

7. Ten Elements of the Philippine Reproductive Health Program. 28/04/14. http://www.popcom6.ph/rhp.html

8.  Source: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2012/

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