Aug 172010

I get so frustrated with how the debate for reproductive health here in the Philippines nearly always gets shut down because of the strong insistence of many, particularly those influenced by the Catholic church, that reproductive health equals abortion. It does not. What good reproductive health can do is prevent the need for abortions. Good reproductive health leads to healthier women and girls, which leads to healthier families, and ultimately healthier communities.

A few weeks ago the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) in New York City released a report on the Philippines, Forsaken Lives: The Harmful Impact of the Philippine Criminal Abortion Ban. Since the release of that report, there have been countless editorials, news articles and blog entries here in the Philippines on the highly controversial subject of abortion. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines and the CRR report demonstrated that the illegality of abortion has not eliminated the need for it, and that more than half a million abortions are performed in the country each year. The crime of abortion can carry prison terms for the women and the providers involved, and any legitimate medical personnel who are proven to have carried out abortions are stripped of their licenses to practice. It is no surprise then that for the majority of the population, abortions are carried out in covert, back-alley procedures. Women seeking abortions most commonly take herbal concoctions that induce contractions, or engage the services of a manghihilot or traditional healer, who performs such intense stomach massages that miscarriages are induced. Many women also take the drug Cytotec which is intended for preventing stomach ulcers, but which can also induce uterine contractions and cause miscarriages in pregnant women.

According to CRR’s research findings, of the 560,000 abortions performed in the Philippines each year, around 90,000 women face complications from the procedure and about 1,000 women or girls die each year. That is about three women dying from abortion related complications each day.  Add to that number the high maternal mortality rate of the Philippines with 162 women dying during pregnancy, childbirth or shortly after childbirth for every 100,000 live births, and one can begin to see more clearly why becoming pregnant is one of the most dangerous things a woman goes through in the Philippines. (In comparison, the average maternal mortality rate in developed countries is 20 deaths for every 100,000 live births). Because of a lack of reproductive health services, education and access to contraception, most Filipina women go through pregnancies multiple times in their lifetime, with the poorest women in the country frequently becoming pregnant up to 10 times during their lives.

Unfortunately, in the Philippines most women and girls are not equipped with the knowledge and tools that will allow them to have a safe and satisfying sex life, and that will allow them to plan the number of pregnancies they will have in their life time. It is so difficult for women and girls to get scientifically sound information on how their bodies work, how pregnancy happens, and how one can prevent pregnancy from occurring. There are so many myths and misconceptions about pregnancy and general reproductive health, and some of the beliefs women have are very harmful. If and when women and girls do know enough about contraceptives, there are still many barriers to actual procurement and use of these technologies. Most notably the biggest barriers for poorer women and girls are the prohibitive costs of condoms, birth control pills and other forms of contraception, and the difficulty and stigma associated with going into a drugstore or public health clinic to try to procure the contraception.

Roots of Health does not fund, promote, or assist women seeking abortions. We support women with life-saving information about how to protect their health and how to plan their pregnancies. We believe that by providing comprehensive education on reproductive health is an integral first step in preventing unplanned pregnancies. We believe that when women are equipped with the knowledge and tools necessary for controlling their fertility, the number of unplanned pregnancies will decrease, as will the need for abortions.

We recently had a full time summer intern, Margeaux Berroth, who conducted research into the health needs and behaviors of students at Palawan State University. She learned much about the realities that face many students, including the fact that sexually active teens who do try to get contraception in order to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are routinely turned away from free public health clinics because they must show a marriage certificate before being given free contraceptives. She also learned that abortions occur at alarmingly high rates and many students end up needing emergency care because of heavy bleeding, infections and other complications. The methods the students use are gruesome – from ingesting poisons to inserting metal rods in their vaginas to throwing themselves out of trees or other high areas belly first so as to harm the fetus and induce miscarriage. We believe that if these students were more educated and more empowered to protect themselves that these situations would not occur.

The Philippine Congress is about to vote on the passage of the Reproductive Health bill, which would mandate the government to provide reproductive health services, including education and access to contraception, to Filipinos. The bill has languished for years because opponents insist that the bill is pro abortion and that providing contraceptives and information on sexual health will lead to promiscuity. The bill is for the health and empowerment of the Filipina, and it most definitely does not promote abortion. I recently came across an article on Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, a proponent of the RH bill. When asked by reporters, she said that she’s not concerned about opposition to the RH bill, especially from those who allege that the bill promotes abortion. “Read the bill first. The bill is not pro-abortion; it is pro-life. It ensures that women who need care for post-abortion complications shall be treated and not left to die,” she said. This quote struck a chord with me. When the abortion debate gets heated, opponents are quick to point to the fetus whose life is ended when an abortion takes place. But what about the women whose lives are at risk from the pregnancies and from post abortion complications? Their lives have value too. And we truly believe that if we equip women and girls with life saving information about their bodies and their health, that they will be able to plan their pregnancies, and the need for abortions will be reduced.

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