Outrage over Philippines’ axing of contraceptives funding

By: Jihan Jacob - Posted on: February 16, 2016 | Featured

OPINION: Just two years after a law mandating reproductive health rights came into force in the Philippines, a decision to scrap the government budget for contraceptives has left health advocates fuming

From our February 2016 issue – download the complete issue via our app here

In December, the Philippine Congress, with the approval of President Benigno Aquino III, axed the health department’s funding for the provision of modern contraceptives to women. The $21 million budget cut goes against the government’s mandate under the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (RPRHA) to provide universal access to  contraceptives so that all women and girls can decide whether or not to have children, and to plan their families.

Reproductive Health in the Philippines
Brimming with births: mothers and babies at Manila’s Dr Jose Fabella maternity hospital. The natal wing has been dubbed the ‘world’s busiest maternity ward’. Photo: DPA

The passage of the act in 2012 should have marked the end of more than a decade of battling to ensure women have access to reproductive health services. But restraining orders by the Supreme Court, the influence of conservative Catholic views and anti-choice rhetoric continue to hinder implementation of the law. Soon after it was enacted, the Supreme Court suspended the entire legislation’s application for more than a year in response to multiple lawsuits arguing that it was unconstitutional.

While the legislation ultimately prevailed, the court struck down a number of provisions in April 2014. This allowed healthcare providers to deny reproductive health services to patients based on their personal or religious beliefs in non-emergency situations. The Supreme Court’s ruling also required spousal consent for women in non-life-threatening circumstances to access reproductive healthcare, as well as parental consent for minors wanting to access modern methods of contraception.

Since the Supreme Court upheld the RPRHA, further restrictions have hindered women from accessing critical, legal health services. In June 2015, the court issued an order preventing the Department of Health from providing specific hormonal contraceptives and prohibiting the country’s Food and Drug Administration from granting any pending applications for reproductive products and supplies, including contraceptive drugs and devices.

To make matters worse, in December the department’s budget for family planning services was cut from $69.5 million in 2015 to $48.3 million in 2016. The slashed funds represented the 2016 budget for contraceptives, leaving the health department scrambling to find private donors to plug the hole. Defending the cut, anti-choice politicians, including Senator Vicente Sotto III, claimed the decision was based on the Supreme Court’s order regarding the health department – demonstrating the legal and political obstacles affecting implementation of the RPRHA.

As a Filipina and reproductive health advocate, these actions by the government and the Supreme Court are a grave affront to me and all women and girls in my country who need and want universal, affordable access to the full range of modern family planning methods.

A law guaranteeing our right to reproductive health means nothing if the government does not provide the funding and means for its implementation. If women and girls like me cannot fully enjoy its guarantees, the law is ineffective. Where we should be seeing progress, we are now seeing regression.

The hostility toward contraception in the Philippines has led to the number of young mothers aged 15 to 19 more than doubling in the past decade, according to the University of the Philippines’ 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Survey. And the United Nations Population Fund estimates that 14 women die every day in the Philippines due to unsafe pregnancies. The Philippine government has repeatedly been criticised for grave and systematic reproductive rights violations. Most recently, in April 2015, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UN Cedaw) determined that the government is violating women’s human rights. While the government claimed it addressed these violations by enacting the RPRHA, political leaders are in fact failing to deliver on the promise to provide women the health services they need.

As a state party to major international human rights treaties, the Philippines will this year be reviewed by three UN committees, including UN Cedaw. Human rights and health advocates will continue calling for the Philippine government to be held accountable for its failure to make significant and lasting progress on women’s and girls’ reproductive rights.

In 2012, President Aquino demonstrated his political will, alongside progressive members of Congress, with the passage of the RPRHA. Filipina women cannot wait any longer for the health services they were promised. It’s time all branches of the Philippine government guarantee and respect women’s reproductive rights. And that starts with adequate funding and the removal of judicial restrictions on this important law’s implementation.

Jihan Jacob is a legal fellow for Asia at the Centre for Reproductive Rights, a global non-profit organisation. She is based in the Philippines.

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