The Philippines Does Not Need A Reproductive Health Bill

This Blog post was written in response to this article that appeared in the Guardian. 

Photo Credit: CNS/Reuters/Erik De Castro

Photo Credit: CNS/Reuters/Erik De Castro

In “Philippines needs resolute political support on reproductive health,” Melissa Upreti of the Center for Reproductive Rights explains in her view how the new reproductive health law—which won’t go into effect until 120 days after its original effective date of March 31, thanks to Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling, and may be nullified after oral arguments before the Court in June—does not go far enough.  Upreti pushes for radical measures that are not consonant with the laws and values of the Philippines.

Upreti argues that the RH law “sanctions ideological bias in hospitals.”  Calling the sincere religious and moral beliefs of doctors, nurses, other health care professionals, and hospitals “ideological bias” is a sorry attempt to deprive them of their rights of conscience.  Freedom of conscience is an internationally recognized human right, the protection of which the Philippines is obligated to guarantee.  Article 5(d)(vii) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognize the right to freedom of conscience.

The Constitution of the Philippines also recognizes the right to free exercise of religion; exercising religion freely means carrying out actions in accordance with the dictates of one’s conscience.  What point is there to the international guarantees of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion if a person can’t actually act on her faith, such as the doctor who refuses to prescribe contraception because of her sincere religious beliefs?

Because it requires that conscientious objectors refer patients to another doctor or hospital, the RH law actually does not go far enough in protecting rights of conscience.  Freedom of conscience means not having to participate in any way in an action that violates one’s religion or belief. Freedom of conscience doesn’t just mean having the ability to opt out of the action itself, but also the freedom to opt out of any action, direct or indirect, that would promote, encourage, or give the appearance of encouraging that action.  For a conscientious objector, referring a patient to another provider is, in effect, participation in an action that violates his conscience.

Upreti also laments that the law includes language from the Constitution on protecting the “life of the unborn,” and that this may be used to protect human embryos.  The Constitution of the Philippines is very clear on the protection of the unborn from conception, before a human embryo is even formed.  Article II, Section 12 states, “The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution. It shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception.”

This provision is in the Constitution, indicating protecting the life of the unborn from conception is a fundamental value of the Filipino people and should be fully supported and promoted by the Filipino government and reflected in its laws.  The RH law’s provisions on the unborn—the unborn are mentioned five times—are a recognition of the rights of the unborn guaranteed in plain language by the Constitution.

It is disingenuous to call the Costa Rican case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights a “precedent.”  Although the Court declared that Costa Rica’s ban on IVF was a violation of human rights, the case has no bearing on the law in the Philippines.  The Philippines is not under the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  The supreme law of the Philippines is its own Constitution.

On emergency contraception, Upreti claims that pregnancy begins after a fertilized egg implants in the uterus and that emergency contraception only prevents this attachment.  But, once again, the Constitution of the Philippines recognizes the right of the unborn from conception.  Emergency contraception that destroys a fertilized egg therefore violates the right to life of the unborn under the Constitution and under the RH law.  Upreti calls the ban on emergency contraception a continuation of human rights violations.  Yet there is no mention of emergency contraception—or contraception in general, for that matter—in any international human rights treaty.

There is one thing we can agree on with Upreti, although we differ on the why: the RH law is far from ideal.  We appreciate the desire of President Aquino and Filipino lawmakers to reduce maternal mortality and better the lives of all Filipinos.  The RH law, however, targets the poor in an attempt to plan their families for them.  It does not prioritize key interventions to improve maternal health, such as skilled birth attendants and provision of prenatal care, obstetric care, and health education for women.  The focus on contraception does not address the women who want to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth.

We eagerly await oral arguments before the Supreme Court on June 18, and we hope that the Supreme Court will recognize that the RH law does not respect the Constitution.  This will result in an opportunity to focus on passing and implementing a law that prioritizes women’s and maternal health.

By Meghan Grizzle Fischer, WYA Research and Policy Specialist and Christine Violago, WYA Regional Director for Asia Pacific.