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Turning point in India, triumph in Philippines for the rights of women

The passage of the RH bill was seen widely as an enormous debacle for the Catholic Church, to which some 80 percent of the population nominally belongs. For 14 years, the Church hierarchy had thrown everything, including the proverbial kitchen sink, at the campaign to have the bill enacted into law. How did the RH advocates manage to beat an institution that has been a massive force in Philippine society for nearly 500 years?

In the early years of the family planning debate, the discourse was heavily weighted on the side of population management. In the last few years, however, the discourse shifted heavily towards emphasizing the reproductive rights and welfare of women.

While the Church and its political allies continued to portray the bill as a foreign-inspired attempt to control the population of the country, the pro-RH forces were able to popularize the bill to politicians and to the public as one that would allow women and their partners free and informed choice in deciding the size of their families and the spacing of their children in order to achieve a better quality of like by providing them access to free or low-cost contraceptives.

While the Church and its allies denied that the family size was positively correlated with poverty, RH advocates produced convincing statistics that showed that the larger the family, the lower its income.

While the anti-RH forces claimed that promoting contraception would inevitably lead to legitimizing abortion, the pro-RH forces turned the argument around and argued that providing access to contraceptives would greatly reduce the incidence of abortion, which is now estimated at 400,000 to 500,000 a year.

The anti-RH forces also found it difficult to counter the pro-RH coalition's claim that greater reproductive health care would greatly reduce the mortality rate for Filipino mothers, which increased from 162 per 100,000 live births in 2009 to 221 in 2011.

While the Church tried hard to present the program as a top-down population control program on the part of the state, the pro-RH forces argued successfully that a decline in the fertility rate at the macro level would be an “incidental result” of voluntary family planning at the micro level — though a very important incidental result, since failure in the near future to reduce the country's currently high Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 3.1 would guarantee a population of some 200-250 million or more at the end of the century, which most economists and ecologists agreed would be unsustainable.

In the end, the Church hierarchy and its allies were reduced to becoming, like their counterparts in the climate front, denialists — that is, denying flat-out the results of surveys, medical statistics, and demographic calculations. Or they were cornered into making fallacious arguments such as the claim the RH bill was unconstitutional because it was anti-life, uttering silly statements like the classic assertion of one congressman that “contraception is abortion,” or trotting out outrageous remarks like that of Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, who compared President Benigno Aquino III to the shooter Adam Lanza, who massacred 27 children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut.

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