Filipino Catholic Church Continues to Fight Family Planning

Three years since its historic passage, the Philippines’ landmark reproductive health act – which provides for family planning and sexual education, among other features – continues to face a series of continuing obstacles put in place by allies of the Catholic Church.

Monkey wrench after monkey wrench has been thrown into the Department of Health’s efforts to implement the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012, as the legislation is known, since it was passed as the capstone of President Benigno S. Aquino III’s presidency in 2012 after being stalled in Congress for 14 years.

President Aquino signed the measure into law on December 21, 2012. That should have been the end of the controversies. But that was not to be. Advocates of the family planning measure RH advocates expect no letup by the church’s allies.

The law polarized the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, with a growing 100 million population. The Catholic Church, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and their conservative political allies have been leading the attempts to thwart the law’s implementation. Previous presidents didn’t push for legislation on reproductive health because they wanted the Catholic Church on their side. It was only Aquino, a highly popular president, who bucked the trend.

Money for contraceptives killed

The latest hurdle is the removal last week of PHP1 billion (US$21.277 million) from the PHP3.275 billion that the Department of Health proposed for its Family Health and Responsible Parenting (FHRP) program. The funds were earmarked for the purchase of contraceptives in 2016, as the RH Law mandates.

Despite the fact that the appropriation had been approved in both the committees and plenary assemblies of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, a bicameral committee composed of selected members of the lower house and Senate slashed the budget. The committee’s job is supposedly to merely tweak inconsistencies and harmonize conflicting aspects of bills before they become laws.

Senator Vicente Sotto III, a member of the bicameral committee, who has long opposed the law, proposed the cut. This happened during the final phase of the budget deliberations before President Aquino signed it into law.

Without funds to distribute free contraceptives to the poor, as the family planning law stipulates, they must rely on outside sources such as private groups and donors, Health Secretary Janet Garin said. About 7 million women with unmet family planning needs are not going to get their contraceptives as a result of the budget cut.

To introduce such a huge slash in the budget of an executive agency’s important program is possible but highly unusual, said Rom Dongeto, Executive Director of the Philippine Legislators Conference on Population and Development. The budgetary cut should have been deliberated upon in the committees of both houses and in the plenary bodies, not in a bicameral committee conference where attendance is limited, Dongeto added.

While 93 percent of Filipinos say they reject abortion on principle, the fact on the ground is that enormous numbers of women get them. The World Health Organization estimated in 2005 that 800,000 illegal abortions are performed every year. That is believed to have climbed by another 100,000 in the intervening decade. Some 70 percent of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion, according to the WHO, four of five of them because women can’t afford care for more children.

Some doctors secretly perform abortions in clinics for PHP2,000-5,000, while those who can’t afford them self-induce or seek solutions from “quack doctors” – folk practioners. As many as 100,000 people end up in the hospital every year because of unsafe abortions according to the Philippine Department of Health.

Residual funds still available

Senator Loren Legarda, Chair of the Committee on Finance, pointed out that the family planning program’s budget of PHP3.27 billion was in 2015 but it designated only 29 percent of that, or PHP955 million to be spent. It still must obligate PHP2.3 billion or 71 percent for the next six months. She said that these remaining funds are still available in 2016 and could be used to augment programs with deficient financial resources.

Sotto said a Supreme Court temporary restraining order issued on June 17, 2015 was the reason for the budget reduction. The restraining order prohibits the health department from selling and distributing the hormonal contraceptive 'Implanon' and 'Implanon NXT.'" It also prevents the health department and food and drug administration from distributing contraceptive drugs and supplies.

Catholic Hierarchy Goes Into Action

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has issued a restraining order that stopped the RH Law’s implementation. In January 2012, barely two weeks after the bill became law, groups allied with the Catholic Church and the Catholic Bishops Conference filed 14 petitions in the Supreme Court requesting a restraining order because they claimed that the law was unconstitutional.

The opponents argued that the law violates the constitutional provision guaranteeing equal protection of the life of the mother and the unborn from conception, that it violates the right to health and the right to protection against hazardous products as contraceptives cause cancer and other health problems and it violates religious freedom because authorizing the use of public funds for the purchase of contraceptives goes against the petitioners’ belief.

The law’s implementation has been a grueling uphill climb and its legislative history is a tortuous process. Its opponents in Congress have stalled and tried to block its passage. The debates, acrimonious and often ridiculous, delved into the question of when life begins; the emergence of a “contraceptive mentality” that would foster licentiousness, promote divorce, same-sex marriage, and abortion; the necessity of a population policy in the Philippines with at least 100 million people; and the appropriateness of using government funds for family planning programs.

The law provides government funding for family planning information and services; measures to prevent pregnancy-related deaths; reproductive health education; reproductive health programs for persons with disability; and social health insurance for life-threatening conditions such as HIV/AIDS, breast and reproductive tract cancers, and obstetric complications. The RH Law does not provide abortion.

Marilen J. Danguilan is a Filipina physician who has written books on reproductive health and is in the process of writing a new one on the fight to pass the Reproductive Health act of 2012.