Inquirer Headlines: Nation

A World with Extreme Poverty is a World of Insecurity.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Scaling up the advocacy

Blame the legislators

Solita Monsod / 16 August / Business World

At the 2nd National Multi-Sectoral Policy Conference on Population and Development (a mouthful), sponsored by the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development (another mouthful, but called PLCPD for short), EU Ambassador Alistair McDonald observed that in the late 18th century, Scotland's population was larger than that of the Philippines — something like 1.7 million people to our 1.6 million people. Unfortunately I did not catch his comparison about the present-day population of these two countries, but certainly, we can get his drift when we see that in 2004, we had 81.6 million people while the entire United Kingdom, of which Scotland is a part, had less than 60 million. "I know Scotland is cold," said McDonald, "but it's not that cold."

At the same conference, UNFPA's Suneeta Mukherjee pointed out that four babies are born every minute (which translates to 5,760 babies born a day), while every day, 10 mothers die while giving birth. Every year, she continued, three million women get pregnant, half of which are unintended or unplanned, and one out of three of these unplanned pregnancies end in abortion.

Congressman Edsel Lagman contributed to this distressing pile of data by noting that the Philippines is the 12th most populous country in the world (and the third largest Roman Catholic country), and quoted Al Gore as saying that we were losing two percent of our forests annually because of a ballooning population; while columnist Jarius Bondoc, not to be outdone, told me in private (he had not the opportunity to ask a question, as he was moderating the panel) that according to a recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) document, the Philippines also has the dubious distinction of being the 19th most polluted country in the world.

Governor Bella Angara Castillo recounted that she spent her last two terms in Congress trying to pass a bill on reproductive health and family planning, but failed to do so, attributing her failure, quite frankly, to the strong lobby of the Roman Catholic Church. Undaunted by her failure in the national legislature, though, the first thing she did as governor of Aurora was to encourage her provincial board to enact a local reproductive health code, and had it passed within a year — the first province in the Philippines to enact one. She also reported that two other provinces, Ifugao and South Cotabato, have done the same thing, partly because of her advocacy. If you can't skin a cat one way, there are other ways, and she is on her soapbox, urging the LGU officials to take up the cudgels for population and development where the national officials (read the legislature) have failed.

I pointed out, when I had the floor, that for every local chief executive like Bella Angara Castillo to champion reproductive health and family planning, we also have someone like Joey Lina or Lito Atienza, who as local chief executives, vetoed any family planning or reproductive health program, due apparently to their strong religious beliefs. And even without those beliefs, the system of internal revenue allocations (IRA), which is partially based on population size, may discourage the LGU officials from actively pursuing a population management program. So while LGU cooperation in family planning would be a plus, it cannot substitute for a national policy and plan.

Neither could I resist pointing out that the PLCPD, in its 18 years of existence, had not succeeded in getting the national legislature to come up to scratch. In fact, while the population growth rate had gone down steadily (if slowly) from 3.08% in the '70s, to 2.75% at the beginning of the '80s and to 2.35% at the beginning of the '90s (when the PLCPD was organized), it seems that at the end of the '90s, if anything, the population growth rate increased — to 2.36%. Not a very good track record.

The Roman Catholic Church is the usual escapegoat for the lack of effective population management in the country. There is no doubt that the hierarchy is actively trying to prevent any but the "natural" method of birth control, but certainly at least some of the members of the clergy and other religious — like Fr. Ruben Tanseco, SJ, and the late Sister Christine Tan — have stated in no uncertain terms that this natural method is ineffective. Others have even called it a most unnatural method.

That being said, however, the main responsibility for the failure to come out with what Lagman calls a rational and comprehensive national policy on population and reproductive health (he says it is the crucial missing link in the government's human development plans), cannot be laid at the door of the Catholic hierarchy — but rather at the door of the legislators themselves. Why? Because they have been turning a deaf ear to what the Filipino people in general and the women in particular are telling them. Either that, or they have attributed to the Roman Catholic Church an influence with the voters that is nonexistent.

Only consider the results of the March 2007 Pulse Asia Survey (Ulat ng Bayan), to the effect that: 92% of Filipinos think that the ability to control fertility and plan a family is important; 89% of them think that government should provide budgetary support for modern methods of family planning including the pill, intrauterine devices, condoms, ligation, and vasectomy (only 3% think that it is not important).

Not only that: 76% say it is important for a candidate to include family planning in his/her program of action (vs. 7% who say it is not); and 75% say that they will support candidates who are in favor of a government budget for family planning (vs. 2% who will not).

There is more: these figures seem to have remained essentially unchanged for at least the past six years — Edsel Lagman claims that they have not changed substantially over the past 15 years. In other words, the Filipino people have been trying to tell their servants (the legislators) what they want, and are willing to translate that desire into votes. In particular, the women, according to the National Demographic and Health Survey of 2003, are saying that they WANT a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.5 children, while the actual TFR is 3.5 children.
If there is any proof that the wishes of the Filipino people trump the desires of the Catholic hierarchy insofar as family planning is concerned, Edsel Lagman and his daughter Crisel constitute that proof. According to Edsel, in the last elections, the Catholic hierarchy in Albay were actively campaigning against him and his daughter, precisely because of the Lagmans' views on the subject.

Both won.

So do we have idiots for legislatures? Another nail in their coffin.


Political health

Saturday, August 18, 2007 / Philippine Star

Family planning, the secretary of health declared, is the least of his department's priorities. The "overwhelming priority," said Francisco Duque, is the improvement of maternal health care to reduce the maternal mortality rate.

How does a long string of unplanned pregnancies improve maternal health? Only this administration can say. No other administration has aggressively resisted any proposal to at least make Filipino couples aware that it is possible to plan the size of their families. No other administration has openly neglected to inform women about their reproductive rights, and provide access to birth control especially to those who need it most — women from impoverished families.

Educated women living above the poverty line do not need the government for that kind of information and access. These women are fully aware of their reproductive rights and the choices they have in spacing childbirths. They do not need to wait in line at crowded government hospitals where they must share not just free wards but beds with other mothers who deliver babies almost every year throughout most of their reproductive years, until their bodies give out.

This is maternal health care, as defined by an administration whose policies have one overwhelming consideration: political survival. Through crisis after political crisis, the administration has enjoyed the support of the Catholic Church. Much of this support has to be based on the certainty — as President Arroyo herself has often declared in public — that the Church influences policy-making in government. If the Church frowns on artificial contraception, so does the administration, and it will go even one step farther: it will deprive the citizenry even of information about family planning. It may violate the constitutional provision on the separation of church and state, but everyone knows that provision is merely a best-efforts pledge.

The heretics who equate maternal health with female reproductive health will all burn in hell. Maternal health care, family planning? This is all about planning for the continued political survival of the administration.

More reports in the PhilMADE blog.