by Joy Icayan
Somewhere we got stuck in history. Condoms cause various diseases, pregnancies, the potential loss of your job, and an eternal life in hell, at least according to the leaders of my country. The Reproductive Health Bill has divided the Philippine population, made up of 80% Catholics into opposing sides, and muddled the conversation with statistics and sob stories, a crying politician, rallies, online appeals to the Creator so on, so forth.
It’s like being in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
The huge outcry, coming no less, from the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines stems from some provisions of the RH Bill: first that the government would be mandated to provide contraceptives and related materials to its constituents, second that the RH Bill proposes age appropriate sex education for the youth. The purpose of the bill is basic enough: to reduce the significant number of maternal deaths in the country, to provide women a choice to plan their families, to educate people so they can become responsible about their choices.
To provide a context, more than half of the population is living in poverty. Most cannot afford contraceptives; pregnant women often do not get decent prenatal or postnatal care. Unsafe abortions are rampant—and daily news tabloids often feature pictures of fetuses in trash cans. When they get especially brutal, sometimes they feature pictures of wire hangers and women with punctured insides—sob stories of a failed abortion.
To provide a more personal context, we grew up fearing an unwanted pregnancy most of all. It was because you had no options—it meant your future was over. You couldn’t buy condoms because you weren’t supposed to know about sex. What we learned about sex, we learned from the crumpled magazines the boys managed to get from wherever and passed around. If you did get pregnant too early, it meant you were unchaste, dirty. Your saving grace was to get married soon. If you were the boy who got someone pregnant, it was your responsibility to ‘man up’ or marry the woman, regardless of your state of maturity. (There is also no divorce in the country.)
But contraceptives, according to our religious leaders, are abortifacients. Educating our children about sex is evil. To take the talk even further, one politician says that masturbation is abortion. (If so, I would hate to think of the daily genocides happening in the homes).
Sometimes during focused group discussions for my job, I ask people what they perceive their rights are. Children list off what they’ve learned from school – stuff they’ve memorized but barely understand, the right for an education and the right to health. The more political ones cite their right for better working conditions, an end to abuses and so forth. But always it is the women, often in economically disadvantaged communities, whose answers fascinate me. They often answer that it is the woman’s right to take care of her family. At first, I thought they were confusing rights for responsibilities, but it turns out they weren’t. Women think of themselves as mothers first, rather than as individuals, and while that may be seen as noble in every way, one can’t help but think how different it might be if they did it out of choice rather than circumstance. If they did it out of choice every time.
It might be all about limiting perspectives—not of the middle class, because those can afford to get contraceptives or even get safe abortions whenever they want, but of the greater majority who are invisible to those who make the choices about these things. It’s about offering a more level playing field—and not imposing values inspired by the Virgin Mary or other martyred saints. It’s about saying that no, you do not have to be pregnant every time you want sex, you do not have to look at every drip of semen as a blessing, you do not even have to want to be a mother. That’s fine, and the men in suits talking about you should know it’s fine.