RECLAIMING OUR FAITH AND DEFENDING OUR RIGHTS:
BUILDING A MOVEMENT OF DISCERNING FILIPINO CATHOLICS FOR REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH
Background and Context
The issue of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the Philippines has greatly divided the Roman Catholic Church and its members. Insisting on its conservative stance, the Church had campaigned against the passage of the Reproductive Health Law (R.A. 10354) for 13 years. It claimed that the law is anti-family and anti-life and that it would encourage promiscuity among teenagers and proliferation of abortion among women. Heated and passionate debates between the pro-life and pro-choice groups escalated to such a point that it would sometimes be difficult to have the two groups share the same space at the same time.
In rallying its members to tow the Catholic position against the RH Law, the Church has significantly trumped the Catholic morality and loyalty cards. While the conservative block has readily embraced this calling, majority of Filipino Catholics are caught in a dilemma of following the rules of their church leaders or of heeding the dictates of their conscience. These Catholics are constantly faced with the dissonance between the teachings of their Church leaders and needs required by the current situation. Much that they respect the leaders of their Church, they are confronted with everyday realities of life such as the worsening poverty situation, increasing population, and high maternal mortality rate. Nearly half of the citizens (48%) self-rate themselves as poor (SWS survey, 2010) and belonging to the dependent sector (19 years old and below). The rapidly increasing and high population (estimated to be 94 million in 2010 as projected by NSCB) creates so much pressure on country’s very limited resources.
The overly delayed reproductive health care services have taken a heavy toll on women’s health, which resulted in 11 women dying every day due to pregnancy and birth-related complications.
Reflecting on the needs of the situation, 68% of discerning Filipino Catholics believe that there should be a law that requires government to distribute legal contraceptives such as pills, IUD, and condoms. An even higher percentage (71%) of Filipino Catholics is in favor of the RH Bill or the adoption of a national policy on RH and family planning (SWS survey 2010).
After more than a decade of deliberations, Congress voted in favor of the RH Bill in December 12, 2012, and was finally signed by then President Aquino into law. The church, however, challenged the law’s constitutionality in front of the Supreme Court, thus halting the law’s implementation. On April 8, 2014, The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law.
In spite of these signs, the leaders of the Catholic Church continually insisted on taking a hard line stand against the RH law. The institutional Catholic Church is banking on its historical and traditional role in Philippine politics. In a country where over 80% of the population are Roman Catholics, the institutional Catholic Church is one of the most influential institutions in Philippine society. It played a decisive role in toppling the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 and in bringing down a highly corrupt Estrada presidency in 2001. The active participation of the Church in secular matters could also be traced back to more than 300 years of theocracy under colonial Spain from 1521 to 1898.
Against this backdrop, a group of discerning Catholics bonded together to encourage fellow Catholics to speak out in support of reproductive health. It was formally launched at the historic Intramuros, in Manila where three of the oldest symbols of Catholicism still remain – the San Agustin Church, Manila Cathedral and the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). The group was motivated to take a stand as Catholic Advocates of RH because they believe that RH is a right and that the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill will help improve Filipinos’ quality of family life, and help save lives, particularly those of mothers and children. In addition to promoting a culture of health awareness and responsible health-seeking behavior among Catholic Filipinos, the RH Bill also promotes responsible parenthood that will encourage couples to have families they can afford to raise within their means and moral beliefs.
Initially called Catholics for Reproductive Health (C4RH) Speak Out! Movement, the passion caught fire and snowballed from the initial seven individual Catholic RH advocates in Metro Manila into other key areas in the country such as the cities of Davao, Cebu, Tacloban, Baguio, Iloilo, Dumaguete and in the provinces of Bicol and Bohol. From the initial 7 founding members, the movement has grown to more than 500 members nationwide.
Individual Pains, Collective Inspiration
For RH advocates who are Roman Catholics, the strong opposition of the institutional Church has deeply affected not only their advocacy but also their personal beliefs. Accounts from Catholic RH advocates mirror the pains they go through as they face censure from their families, friends, and co-workers. One RH advocate was disowned by her mother, calling her adopted, and given the silent treatment after she came out in morning show where she spoke about emergency contraception and other artificial family planning methods. Others opted to become silent because their children are enrolled in Catholic schools. The more vocal RH advocates have been demonized and called devils and Satans by so-called pro-life groups. Conservative columnists in national papers call RH advocates as “doing the work of the devil” and challenge members of C4RH to leave the church if they will not obey the church leaders’ position on RH.
Many RH advocates are Catholic themselves and being called devils is not taken lightly more so if challenged to leave their Church. Fighting for Reproductive Health Rights and being Catholic is a struggle for many RH advocates. In exasperation, many have questioned their faith and their respect for the Church authorities. Some have refused to hear masses altogether in protest for the use of pulpit in spreading misconceptions about RH and in rallying the churchgoers against the RH Bill. But still many remained firm in their convictions and sought solace in their conscience that their faith does not run counter to their belief in RH as a right.
It is this collective inspiration that moves C4RH into action. C4RH aims to bring Catholics into full harmony with their faith and realize that there is no dissonance with their being Catholic and simultaneously believing in the advocacy and goals of reproductive health and rights. The members remain loyal to the church but continue providing RH education and services to those who truly need them.