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The Philippines: The Abortion Scare versus Human Rights Standards

Friday 20 August 2010, by siawi2

Source: engenderights August 11, 2010 (edited August 18, 2010)


By Atty. Clara Rita A. Padilla, Executive Director, EnGendeRights

The abortion scare is truly just a scare. The religious right would use all kinds of scare tactics and disinformation by claiming that contraceptives are abortifacients and that the reproductive health care bill (RH bill) promotes abortion. They have long been using these arguments in public fora and debates. Both these two arguments of the religious right are, of course, untrue. Their arguments are not based on medical science and factual content of the RH bill which, in truth, does not allow a single ground for safe and legal abortion.

What legislators, reproductive rights and women’s rights activists, people in government and the public should bear in mind is, in this day and age, our discourse should be raised to the level of international human rights standards, realities women face, public health, medical science, and legal reform.

The criminal law on abortion is an outdated colonial law that violates the rights to health and life of Filipino women. It was a direct translation of the old Spanish Penal Code of 1870s that used to criminalize abortion—in the time of the Spanish friars and conquistadores. Without knowing the full consequences of such a harsh and restrictive law, our congress enacted the criminal provision in our Revised Penal Code of 1930. At the time the law was adopted, Filipino women did not even have the right to vote, there was no Universal Declaration of Human Rights and no international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1976), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR, 1976), Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1981), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1990). These came much later.

In this day and age, we talk about a humane society where no woman should die from pregnancy, childbirth, and unsafe abortion. We talk about the right to control one’s fertility with proper access to reproductive health information and services, the right to sex and sexuality education where we should be discussing delaying sexual debut, safe sex, risks of early sex, sexually transmitted infections, reproductive tract infections, risks of early pregnancy, risks of early marriage, violence against women, empowerment of women and girls, and the right to sexual orientation and gender identity, among others.

Our discourse and standards should include separation of church and state where the church should not be meddling with affairs of the state, where there is non-establishment of religion, where the standard is not religious standards from the Catholic, Islam or whatever religion but the standard should be secular morality. All these constitutional guarantees are there to maintain public good and uphold human rights.

The international human rights standard is to liberalize abortion laws to make it safe and accessible to women and thereby lessen maternal mortality related to unsafe abortion. The Philippines is duty-bound to fulfill its treaty obligations to uphold the right to equality, equal protection of the law, non-discrimination of women, right to health and life under the ICCPR, ICESCR, CEDAW, and CRC. Recognizing that the criminalization of abortion does not lessen the number of women inducing abortion but only makes it dangerous for women who undergo clandestine and unsafe abortion, in 2006, the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee),[1] urged the Philippine government to “consider reviewing the laws relating to abortion with a view to removing punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortion and provide them with access to quality services for the management of complications arising from unsafe abortions and to reduce women’s maternal mortality rates in line with the Committee’s general recommendation 24 on women and health and the Beijing Platform for Action.”[2]

In 2008, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)[3] expressed its concern that “abortion is illegal in all circumstances, even when the woman’s life or health is in danger or pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, and that complications from unsafe, clandestine abortions are among the principal causes of maternal deaths.” The Committee encouraged the Philippines “to address, as a matter of priority, the problem of maternal deaths as a result of clandestine abortions, and consider reviewing its legislation criminalising abortion in all circumstances.”

With the stark realities of not having access to sex and sexuality education, poor and adolescent women and girls not knowing how to properly manage their fertility and where to get the proper information and services, with policy restrictions in place such as the Manila EO 003 denying access to modern contraceptives and discouraging ligation to the poor women who need them, with the prevalence of rape, and the overall impact on reproductive health with more than half of all pregnancies being unintended and statistics ranging from 17% to one-third of these unintended pregnancies ending in abortion, 560,000 women who induced abortions, 90,000 women hospitalized and 1,000 women who died from complications from unsafe abortion in 2008 alone,[4] we simply cannot be scared by the religious right or succumb to conservative discourse. The women who were hospitalized and maltreated by doctors and nurses and the families of the women who died due to complications from unsafe abortion, the rape victims who were tortured from the pregnancy resulting from rape have long been waiting for humane laws, policies, and practices. Not providing access to safe and legal abortion to women, especially poor women, who want to terminate their unwanted pregnancies is much like sentencing these women to death—since about a thousand of them die every year.

How do we prevent such discrimination and violation of human rights? On one hand, we should prevent unwanted pregnancies through sex education and increased access to the full range of contraceptive methods, provide access to skilled birth attendants, provide emergency obstetric care, overturn policies that restrict access to reproductive health information and services, pass a comprehensive RH bill, and implement it to the full extent. At the same time, we should provide access to safe and legal abortion either on certain grounds (rape, danger to the health and life of the woman, fetal impairment) or on broader grounds to do away with judicial and medical interpretation.***

[1] The committee tasked to monitor the implementation of CEDAW by the Philippines as a state party.

[2] 2006 CEDAW Committee Concluding Comments.

[3] The committee tasked to monitor the implementation of CESCR by the Philippines as a state party.

[4] Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), Meeting Women’s Contraceptive Needs in the Philippines, 1 In Brief 2 (2009),