Sometimes, the discourse surrounding the reproductive health debate in the Philippines sounds more like it was lifted out of the Middle Ages.
Case in point was the exchange recently held in the Senate between Sen Juan Ponce Enrile and both Pia Cayetano and Miriam Santiago, joint authors of the reproductive health bill in the Senate. Enrile, the former defense secretary who served as the chief architect of Martial Law under Pres Marcos which gave rise to the country’s first population management policy in the 1970s and 80s is now casting the proposed bill on responsible parenthood as a sinister plot on the part of the state to dictate to particularly poor households the number of children they are to have. He said,
What reason can we morally advance to justify the idea embedded in the recesses of Senate Bill No. 2865 to accomplish the sustained and deliberate reduction of the size of Filipino families, especially the poor and marginalized, through birth control in the guise of adopting a reproductive health policy for this country?
The Senate President evidently believes that when the law becomes operationalized, the government will engage in interventions over and beyond what is explicitly stated in the bill, which is to provide couples with informed choice and access to different forms of family planning and reproductive health. He likens the intrusiveness of the State under this imagined scenario to the very heavy handed attempts at social engineering by Fascist dictators, when he argued,
If we condemn the idea of euthanasia that renders mercy killing in the guise of (being merciful) to a needy human being, if we condemn eugenics that advocates selective breeding in the guise of improving hereditary qualities, if we condemn the idea behind the act of Adolf Hitler in exterminating Jews in Europe in the guise of preserving the superiority of the Aryan race, if we condemn the idea behind the killing fields of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the guise of reforming the social ills of his country, and if we condemn the mass graves of Saddam Hussein in Iraq where he buried his political enemies in the guise of maintaining law and order in his country—what reason can we morally advance to justify (the bill)?
The claim of a clandestine agenda behind the bill sounds as though it was made by some crackpot, not by one of the highest officials of the land and one of its legal luminaries. One wonders however whether Enrile truly believes in the competency of the State to: (a) hatch such an elaborate plan, and (b) competently carry it out.
I mean, if even under an authoritarian regime, the government with a more restrictive population management and control policy was not able to effectively implement its policy then, why would it be able to hatch such a devious and deliberate plan today and be able to get away with it?
The simple fact of the matter is, the global consensus that formed around population policy since the 1970s has tended to focus on choice and the ability of couples to decide in a well-informed manner how many children they want to have and stick to such a decision. It is no longer about achieving some pre-determined “optimal size” of the household. And this basic tenet is what the current RH bill embodies.
Under such a framework, the State becomes less intrusive and in fact merely acts as a guarantor and facilitator of last resort to a household of its capacity to make such an all-important decision. Under the current situation, the default “choice” of most couples is the natural family planning method, for the simple reason that they do not have the means to choose otherwise.
This in a way creates a bias in favor of the Catholic Church’s position. In a pluralistic world where even Catholics should be allowed to make a conscious decision about such personal and intimate affairs, such a bias is really untenable. What the RH bill would in effect do is shift the default setting to a more neutral position: one where all the safe and reliable methods are made available and where choice is not restricted.
Given the cultural preference already exhibited by Filipinos for larger families (when compared to other countries, while controlling for income and other variables), such a light-handed approach would only influence those who might have exceeded what they deem their (higher) limit for child rearing. This is demonstrated by a number of cases reported by the media where other family planning options are only considered by poor households primarily the womenfolk when they have given birth to upwards of eight children when six was their desired number.
In other words, through early interventions, what the RH bill is most likely to do is help these families achieve their desired family size which is usually in the order of four, five or six members, rather than force them to limit their household to three or four members.
Now in a pluralist world, such an outcome is perfectly acceptable.