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The Philippine RH Bill: A Chance for Reproductive Justice in the Region

by Nina Somera

The Philippine Congress is set to vote on the reproductive health bill. As in the last 16 years, the day can render the bill as a political threat due to the enigmatic but non-existent “Catholic vote” and therefore dispose it as just another pile of papers. But Congress can also make history by breaking free from a modern frailocracy, acknowledging poverty from the faces and bodies who endure it, and therefore making sense of the democracy. More importantly, it can make a difference in the region as it gives reproductive justice a chance to inform governance.

Poverty and Population
The Philippines has been used to speak of democracy, with certain administrations vocally supporting the opposition leaders and political prisoners of Burma and Malaysia, Aung San Suu Kyi and Anwar Ibrahim [1]. Yet ours remains a fractured democracy that is marred by contradictions, where class interests have derailed land reform through redistribution and where extrajudicial executions still happen, among others.

No wonder such contradiction has flown right into our faces, with many a political scientist who has pointed out the Philippines’ burgeoning poverty and ballooning population. The Philippines’ per capita income pales at USD4,073 compared with USD9,396 of Thailand which has nearly 67 million people or with the most populous in the region and largest archipelago in the world, Indonesia with USD4,325 [2].

Today, more than 45 per cent of the more than 90 million Filipinos consider themselves poor [3]. Worse, 11 mothers die every day because of pregnancy complications. According to Guttmacher Institute, around 68 per cent of such complications arise from induced abortion and therefore unplanned pregnancies usually among poor women. These are some simple facts which the Catholic, other like-minded religious hierarchies and the faithful among some politicians refuse to recognize.

Trouble is the 11 deaths daily are just the tip of the iceberg. Beyond it are infants who will not be able to reach their first year, the older children who will have to stop schooling to care for their younger and motherless siblings, who will endure the violence of a father, who is under immense pressure. And then frustrated children who may well decide to leave the house, stop schooling, found a family but without the wherewithal to manage their bodies and their own children and therefore exposing themselves to the same risks and violence. And so the cycle of danger and death continues.

There is no doubt that many ASEAN neighbors have left us as they kept their economic scale proportional to their population size. Some RH bill advocates, including progressive thinker Walden Bello and the bill’s principal author Edcel Lagman have cited population management as among the reasons for the RH bill [4]. But however supportive they are of women’s human rights and scientific their arguments are, the religious took the chance to brand the RH as a tool for “population control” and bolster its campaign [5].

But there is more beyond economic progress and optimum population management, whichever is the cause and the consequence. The reproductive health services of the welfare states of Singapore and Brunei’s appear to be more in line with natural and human resource constraints. In Singapore, there are indications of sex-selective abortion, based on deep-seated preference for boys than girls [6]. In Thailand, reproductive health services are critical to its tourism industry as it continues to be hounded by sexually transmitted diseases [7]. Meanwhile in Vietnam, abortion is part of public health services but subsidized services target married couples of a certain reproductive bracket. As of Do Thi Hong Nga of Ipas Vietnam described, “Unmarried women in reproductive ages, who are often more vulnerable, have no access to subsidised programmmes and products. Various contraceptives are neither widely available nor distributed to people who need them most” [8]. The services do not always include counseling before and after the procedure.

Of course the RH bill can potentially benefit Manila’s own prostituted women and sex workers, regardless of how they define themselves. But this RH bill does not cater to any industry, whether legal or illicit. Nor is it an imposition of the state for the purpose of economic expediency and population management even if it may have a positive effect on the economy and population growth in the long run.

The RH bill and Reproductive Justice
The RH bill is all about our right to self-determination --- how we would keep our bodies free from risks, harm and violence, how we would like to bear and raise our children and keep them healthy and safe as well, how we would define our gender identities and engage in relationships, without compromising our sexual and reproductive well-being. It is about access to conditions that can facilitate the exercise of this right --- ensuring the availability of correct and complete information about our bodies and a suite of sexual and reproductive health services --- all of these according to international human rights standards.

Moreover, the RH bill is what majority of poor couples, especially women have been demanding and several social movements and experts have been advocating. In the last Social Weather Station survey, 70 per cent of Filipinos are in favor of the bill, discrediting the bait of “Catholic vote.” The RH is about the state, exercising its role as a primary duty-bearer in preventing the deaths of 11 mothers each day, unplanned pregnancies, deaths of children under two years and the many other harsh consequences that hit the poor, women and girls the hardest. The RH bill is about reproductive justice.

Reproductive justice has begun as a critique of the framework of choice in women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, particularly among African-Americans and minority women in the United States. While women may assert their choice to have an abortion, their access remains circumscribed by the availability of public health services, their income, immigration status and support networks. In such context, the choice framework becomes more of a white middle class privilege. Reproductive justice insists that for women to access their SRHR, they must be given the “enabling conditions” which can facilitate such access [9]. Further, it extends to movement-building and strengthening. As Loretta Ross of Sister Song describes, “Reproductive justice is no universal solution, but a fresh approach to creating unifying and intersectional language with which to build bridges” [10].

Seeing the RH bill as reproductive justice does not romanticize the thousands of women who have died and their children who have suffered in the absence of their mothers. Instead, it makes sense out of the tragedy and in turn, engenders chances of a better life for the next generation. The protracted struggle and the popular support for the bill must not be missed. For they constitute hope that our democracy still works.

[1] In one way, the political support for Aung San Suu Kyi and Anwar Ibrahim can be attributed to personal connections more than foreign policies. Fernando del Mundo (2008). “Aquino, Estrada, Anwar: An Evening of Memories.” URL:
[2] Based on International Monetary Fund figures
[3] Based on Social Weather Station survey. See (2012).“Highest ‘self -rated poverty level’ during P-Noy administration recorded in SWS survey, 55% of respondents claim to be poor.” URL:
[4] See Walden Bello (2012). “Reproductive Health Bill: Sidelined but Irrepressible.” URL:
[5] Gil C. Cabungcan (2011). “Lagman: Claim of anti-RH lobby an old tale.” URL:
[6] Sneha Barot (2012). “Sex-selective Abortion Bans: A Disingenuous New Strategy to Limit Women's Access to Abortion.” URL:
[7] Walden Bello (2011). “Tale of Two Countries: Family planning in Thailand, PH.” URL:
[8] Do Thi Hong Nga (2008). “More to Demand: Abortion in Vietnam.” Women in Action (Vol. 1), p 7.
[9] Loretta Ross (2007), “Understanding Reproductive Justice: Transforming the Pro-Choice Movement.” In Off Our Backs. (Vol. 56, No. 4), p 14-19.
[10] Ibid.

Nina Somera is Filipina who supports the RH bill. She is post-graduate student of Comparative Literature in the University of the Philippines. She lives in Thailand. nina[DOT]

Gender-based Violence
Human Rights
South and Central Asia
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