By: Marilen J. Danguilan

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.