Sexual health debate intensifies in the Philippines | Connect Asia

Sexual health debate intensifies in the Philippines

Sexual health debate intensifies in the Philippines

Updated 18 January 2012, 16:35 AEDT

Lawmakers in the Philippines are again debating legislation on access to reproductive services in the country.

A bill that seeks to improve access to contraception and family planning services, is already facing strong opposition from influential Roman Catholic bishops. Advocates of the bill say it will improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and even save lives. But opponents fear it will lead to legalised abortion in the staunchly Catholic nation.

Presenter:Alma Mistry

Representative Luzviminda Ilagan, Gabriela Women's Party, Father Melvin Castro, Executive Secretary, Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, Philippines

MISTRY: Reproductive health is a contentious issue in the Philippines. Abortion is illegal and access to contraception and sex education is limited.

Luzviminda Ilagan, from the Philippines' Gabriela Women's Party, is a co-author of the Reproductive Health Bill that's currently before the Philippines Congress. If passed, she says the Bill will dramatically improve the lives of Filipino women by giving them access to education about sexual health and making sure poor women can afford contraception and family planning information.

ILAGAN: Statistics show that 11 women die daily here in the Philippines because of complications in pregnancy or in giving birth which are easily preventable and the second key point is for government to provide access to affordable and safe methods of family planning. As a co-author we believe this bill is very important to prevent more maternal deaths.

MISTRY: Congresswoman Ilagan says sex education is extremely limited in the Philippines, and is virtually always confined to a debate about biology. The Reproductive Health Bill proposes a more practical discussion about sexuality and reproduction and that it be mandatory for school children in their early teens. The Roman Catholic Church is against the Bill. For the past decade it's been part of efforts to block laws to improve access to contraception. But Ms Ilagan says she hopes this Bill will be successful.

ILAGAN2: In the past it's never got to congress because of the very strong lobbying from the Catholic Church but this time we feel more and more and more people are demanding services from government and more and more women say they should be assisted when it comes to accessing safe and affordable family planning.

MISTRY: The Catholic Church says it's determined to fight the bill. Father Melvin Castro is one of its most outspoken opponents. He says the Bill would lead to a more permissive culture in the Philippines. And while supporters say the Bill would slow country's booming population growth, Father Castro says there's no link between rates of poverty and population growth.

CASTRO: We do not believe that the cause of poverty in the Philippines is over population. In one survey alone which was not ours they asked Filipinos what are they're main concerns and the two things that we Filipinos identified were employment and livelihood. Nowhere in the top ten did poor people say they needed contraception.

MISTRY: Researchers from the US based Guttmacher Institute say as many as 54 per cent of pregnancies in the Philippines are unwanted. Illegal abortions are thought to be common and advocates of the Reproductive Health Bill say it would help reduce the need for unsafe abortions, because they say unwanted pregnancies would be less common.

ILAGAN3: Women who are married and already have five or six children and can't afford to feed another mouth undergo abortion because it is a pregnancy that is unwanted or mis-timed. But if we have this Bill we will reduce the rate of pregnancy that are mis-timed.

MISTRY: Father Castro admits the Bill wouldn't legalise abortion. But he says it would create an environment where the prospect of legalised abortions could become more acceptable in the public debate.

CASTRO: The mere fact that you are espousing and making use of the word reproductive health which is internationally defined and accepted that it includes access to abortion, then we are already giving a window of probability and possibility in the future.

MISTRY: The passage of the Bill remains uncertain. President Benigno Aquino has in the past voiced support for the use of contraception. But his cabinet recently dropped the Reproductive Health Bill from its list of priority legislation.

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