August 12, 2012

Lurking behind the RH bill

The period of debate on HB 4244 - AN ACT PROVIDING FOR A COMPREHENSIVE POLICY ON RESPONSIBLE PARENTHOOD, REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH, AND POPULATION MANAGEMENT, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES - the consolidated Lower House version of what is deceptively named and popularly known as the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, was ended abruptly by majority vote last Monday night.

This occurred a day earlier than scheduled, apparently as a result of Malacanang’s move to push the bill forward.  This means the bill has gone one step further in the legislative mill to the period of amendments before it is put to a vote on second reading.  This is a positive development even though it demonstrates once more the strong sway of Malacanang over the Lower House.

The bluster and bluff of the Catholic Church hierarchy regarding their capacity to convert the anti-RH sentiment to punishment of pro-RH politicians at the 2013 polls has received a major rebuff.  It is a sad commentary on the level of debate over the bill that the first major battle had to be over antiquated and irrational beliefs held on to by Catholic Church leaders and their followers.

Understandably, the pro-RH camp in the Lower House - a curious mix of Aquino administration allies, women’s RH advocates, population control apostles - are pleased that they have won Round 1in the stand-off with the anti-RH camp.  The latter had been reinvigorated by the show-of-force rally led by the CBCP two days earlier at the historic EDSA Shrine and the high-profile switching of sides by six co-authors of the bill.  They were led by none other than former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, defiantly out on bail from hospital detention after prosecutors failed to prove they had a strong case.

The contention over the RH bill appeared like another looming collision between Mr. Aquino and Mrs. Arroyo fanned by the grandstanding of the latter, the desperation of the CBCP for additional congressional allies and the overeager GMA bashing by some of Mr. Aquino’s loyalists who coined the slogan “A no vote for RH is a yes vote for Gloria!”

The antis and the pros are gearing for another clash during this second stage.  The antis will attempt to thoroughly emasculate the bill with major amendments based on a reprise of their earlier arguments. But this time around those in the pro-RH camp who reject the framing of the RH bill as a population control measure will finally have the chance to push for amendments that will shape the RH bill as one that upholds and promotes women’s’ reproductive health rights sans the population control agenda.

What is wrong with population control as the overarching framework for the RH bill?

First, it attributes poverty and economic backwardness or so-called underdevelopment to runaway population growth and thereby covers up the real causes especially those having to do with the exploitation and oppression of the working people in an unjust social system and government policies that shore up such a system.

Second, it shifts the burden of poverty to the poor themselves citing their mistaken belief that more children will mean better social security; their ignorance of the scientific rationale for family planning; their lack of access to fertility control methods and services because of their inability to pay for these; and plain irresponsibility in having children unmindful of the implications and consequences
Third, it will repeat the mistake of population control programs since the 70s that utilized scarce public funds for the aforesaid purpose with barely an impact on maternal and child health much less on alleviating poverty and reversing maldevelopment.

Finally, it dangles major improvements in maternal and child health and even utilizes the promise of women empowerment through RH rights in order to advance its reactionary agenda.

The history of population control policies and programs in the Philippines is replete with how a succession of Philippine presidents since Ferdinand Marcos were inveigled and the civilian bureaucracies indoctrinated with hefty USAID funding and UN imprimatur to latch on to the convenient line that the problem of poverty and underdevelopment was a “population problem”.

The only major backstep to this was during the Arroyo regime when Mrs. Arroyo sought to win over as many RC bishops as she could to support her embattled presidency by reducing the population control policy to a “natural family planning” program of the Health Department.

A 1975 confidential document titled “National Security Study Memorandum 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests (NSSM200)” gave “paramount importance” to population control measures and the promotion of contraception among 13 populous countries, including the Philippines. It deemed rapid population growth inimical to the socio-political and economic growth of these countries and to the national interests of the United States since these countries can produce destabilizing opposition forces against the latter. It recommends the US leadership to "influence national leaders" and that "improved world-wide support for population-related efforts should be sought through increased emphasis on mass media and other population education and motivation programs by the UN, USIA, and USAID.”

The Philippine government’s commitments to the UN Medium Development Goals cites population control measures couched in the less politically charged terms of reproductive health as the key to taking advantage of the “demographic window of development”.  In this scenario it is alleged that there will be “more productive citizens relative to dependents and ... savings can increase.”

Mr. Aquino’s quip in his SONA speech that with “responsible parenthood” there will hopefully be less numbers of children needing public education and therefore a reduced demand on government resources derives from this expected outcome.

HB 4244 while ostensibly aiming to guarantee universal access to methods and information on birth control and maternal care is still heavily framed and anchored on population control as the means to development.  The title of the bill itself clearly links RH to “population and development”.

In the section on “Guiding Principles”, despite the proviso that “there shall be no population targets and the mitigation of population growth is incidental to the promotion of RH and sustainable human development” there is the countervailing statement that “the limited resources of the country cannot be suffered to be spread so thinly to service a burgeoning multitude making allocations grossly inadequate and effectively meaningless.”

Section 12 talks about “integration of responsible parenthood and family planning components in all anti-poverty programs and sustainable human development programs” again echoing the line that fertility and population control is fundamentally entwined with poverty and underdevelopment.

Section 26 on Implementing Mechanisms bestows on the Population Commission the role of “coordinating body for the implementation of this act” with the mandate to “integrate on a continuing basis the interrelated health and population development agenda”. According to the bill’s principal sponsor, the PopCom “shall serve as the central planning, coordinating, implementing and monitoring body for the comprehensive and integrated policy on reproductive health and population development.”

All told, HB4244 is undoubtedly a population control bill in the proverbial reproductive health clothing.

The positive provisions in the current RH bill should not end up as mere cosmetization of population control and serve as an insidious come-on to lure women’s health advocates to uncritically support the bill in its current form.

Reproductive health rights pertain to the rights of women to take charge of their reproductive functions so that they may balance the role of giving life and rearing the young with being productive members of society in other capacities, as well as pursuing their aspirations and dreams for themselves and others. It cannot be denied that RH rights are intrinsically and inextricably tied up with women’s overall socio-economic status.

An RH bill that seeks fertility control as a means primarily to control population growth rather than to empower women by improving their overall health status and their reproductive health in particular is at bottom anti-women and is doomed to fail.

Women’s health advocates and progressives must wage a more determined fight to rid the current RH bill of its population control prison and thus defeat the attempt to use reproductive health as a cover to advance the discredited and pernicious population control agenda. #

Published in Business World
10-11 August 2012