NYT: Filipinos Fight For Reproductive JusticeS

In the Philippines, many women are facing a grim reality: with poverty levels rising along with the population, some can't afford to keep supporting their growing families. The problem? Birth control is hard to find, and abortion is illegal.

Today's New York Times examines the situation, starting off with a grim portrait of the lengths women will go through to abort:

Gina Judilla already had three children the first time she tried to terminate a pregnancy. "I jumped down the stairs, hoping that would cause a miscarriage," she said. The fetus survived and is now an 8-year-old boy.

Three years later, pregnant again, she drank an herbal concoction that was supposed to induce abortion. That, too, failed.

Three years ago, in another unsuccessful attempt to end a pregnancy, she took Cytotec, a drug to treat gastric ulcers that is widely known in the Philippines as an "abortion pill."

The article reveals that abortion in the Philippines is illegal, and, though reproductive health services are available through a private medical system, as much as 70% of the population is too poor to access birth control methods and information. While the state-run health care system does provide for some of these services, it is implemented by local authorities, many of whom promptly banned birth control citing religious reasons.

More recently, however, family planning advocates have been making headway in their campaign to change that. Legislation before the Philippine Congress, called the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act, would require governments down to the local level to provide free or low-cost reproductive health services, including condoms, birth control pills, tubal ligations and vasectomies. It would also mandate sex education in all schools, public and private, from fifth grade through high school.

Supporters of the bill cite urgent public health needs. A 2006 government survey, which interviewed 46,000 women, found that between 2000 and 2006, only half of Filipino women of reproductive age used birth control of any kind. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization based in the United States that researches reproductive health policy, 54 percent of the 3.4 million pregnancies in the Philippines in 2008 were unintended.

Most of those unintended pregnancies - 92 percent - resulted from not using birth control, the institute said, and the rest from birth control that failed. Those unintended pregnancies, the institute says, contributed to an estimated half-million abortions that year, despite a ban on the procedure. Most of the abortions are done clandestinely and in unsanitary conditions. Many women resort to crude methods like those Ms. Judilla tried.

Opponents of the bill are finding their support in churches, saying:

The Rev. Melvin Castro of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, an arm of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the Catholic Church and the laity would fight the bill, if passed into law, up to the Supreme Court.

"The Constitution is very clear that the state should protect life from conception up to its natural end," Father Castro said."Regardless of their religion, Filipinos are God-fearing and family-loving. This bill will change that culture."

Interestingly, both sides are arguing that they are working in the best interests of women. The opposition explains they want to "to protect [women's] wombs from those who want to take away life." They do not provide a reason why women like Judilla have to suffer to protect their ideology.

(Image Credit: Luis Liwanag for The New York Times)

Bill to Increase Access To Contraception Is Dividing Filipinos [NY Times]