Voices from Within: Concerned Catholics Supporting Reproductive Health: A panel discussion featuring concerned Catholics who are also supportive of Reproductive Health and the Reproductive Health Bill
Welcoming the Guests
Ms. Chi Vallido
Ms. Chi Vallido acted as the moderator for the forum and welcomed the arrival of the participants and guests. She also introduced the panelists and the topic that would be covered, as well as the organizers of the event. She provided a brief report on what happened earlier when the participants joined the tour led by Ms. Carlos Celdran.
Mr. Benjamin D. de Leon – President, The Forum
Mr. Ben de Leon welcomed the panelists, guests and participants to this event. He mentioned that the panelists have been involved in RH issues and has been supporting the organizers in this effort. He also reminded that the event is held in Intramuros, a historical site, where a discussion of RH issues – from a Catholic point of view – would in a way be enlightening. He also welcomed the presence of prima ballerina Ms. Liza Macuja-Elizalde and thanked the partners, organizers, guests and participants.
Ms. Suneeta Mukherjee – Assistant Representative, UNFPA
Ms. Mukherjee acknowledged the fact that in such a country like the Philippines where religion runs the country and politics as well as decision-making is influenced by the church, maintaining reproductive health and a family planning program can be a big challenge. Nearly half of the estimated 3.1 million pregnancies that occur every year in the country are unplanned and a greater percentage of that ends up in abortion. She cited the withdrawal of contraceptive plays a big factor in this issue as it created a dent in supplies. She also stressed that while the UNFPA is one with the people against abortion, it believes that couples should be given the freedom to choose how many children they will have, and when to have them. It is a matter of freedom of choice. She also mentioned that the UNFPA will continue to support efforts to implement an effective reproductive health policy in the Philippines in a bid to reduce maternal mortality.
Dr. Ernest Pernia, Professor – UP School of Economics
Dr. Pernia has been known for his studies favoring the implementation of a sound family planning and reproductive health program to alleviate poverty in the country. He began his presentation by saying that he is a Catholic but his Catholicism is a personal one and not more external. He also believes that Catholics who are in favor of family planning are more concerned on the importance of having people choose the number and pacing of their children so that children become well nourished and well taken care of to realize their full potential. Citing the teachings of the Catholic Church, he explained that the glory of God is a human being living a dignified and a fulfilling life and this is a lesson that the Pope or bishops should reflect on. Dr. Pernia also stressed that the Philippines has this problem of a "hard Church, and a soft State" , a State that can’t carry on a responsibility of having a good population policy with a well funded program like what other countries have. While in other countries, the issue of population management has long been resolved and a policy been put in place, in the Philippines, the Church remains hard in its stance and the government unable to go against it.
Dr. Pernia cited the study conducted by economists of the University of the Philippines, including three former socioeconomic planning secretaries ( a total of 27 faculty members and professionals),that backed the reproductive health (RH) bill pending in Congress and said its critics were erroneous in claiming that it was pro-abortion and anti-life. The five-page position paper read by Dr. Pernia said that they "strongly support the RH bill and urge the national leadership to be fully and unequivocally behind it," they said, citing the measure’s main thrust of enabling couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the inf ormation and means to carry out their decisions.
The position paper was written based on researches done by the economists, including former Socioeconomic Planning Secretaries Dante Canlas, Felipe Medalla and Solita Monsod, former Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, former Asian Development Bank economist Ernesto Pernia and former Philippine Stock Exchange president Cayetano Paderanga. They said that population growth and poverty were highly correlated, and cited a study showing that of the poor families in the Philippines, only 10 percent had only one child, while 57 percent had nine or more children. There is evidence that the poor prefer smaller families, except that they are unable to achieve their preference. On the average, among the poorest 10 percent of women of reproductive age, 44 percent of pregnancies are unwanted, according to the team. they said. Dr. Pernia read the statement to the audience.
Dr. Azucena Suplido, Consultant – Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, UP-PGH
Dr. Suplido is a Catholic – and the eldest of 7 children of devout Catholic parents – and goes to church as Catholics do. But being an ob-gyne, she believes that her Catholic faith does not hinder her from practicing her profession, rather she complements her Catholic faith with her support for reproductive health. She is not bothered at all if in the course of her practice, she would prescribe contraceptives to patients believing that in doing so, she is helping fulfill her role of promoting her patient’s health and well-being.
Why is she in favor of family planning? Because in her years of practice, she has seen many women die of complication due to high risk pregnancies – such as those pregnancies by young women, or those with too many pregnancies and pregnancies complicated by medical conditions such as hypertension, and other diseases, etc. If all women would avoid high-risk pregnancies through family planning then many lives would have been saved and maternal death would have been reduced. She cited some cases of her patients who got pregnant and died because their faith was against the use of contraceptive. She also saw patients who had abortion because they had unwanted pregnancies and these patients had complications. She also said that family planning changed the lives of the children. Proper pacing enables children to grow up healthy.
Dr. Suplido also cited the benefits of contraceptive methods. One of them is condom in avoiding the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. She gave distinction to contraception and abortion. In abortion there is a termination of a life. She also believes that the artificial method of family planning has an edge over the natural method because the natural method is unreliable. She stressed that proper family planning promotes reproductive health because it allows proper spacing of children and enables the child to have a dignified existence.
Dr. Alberto G. Romualdez, Vice President – The Forum; Dean – Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, Graduate School of Nursing
He said he is a Catholic being raised and educated in Catholic school. But as a medical student, he realized that not all Filipinos are treated equal especially by the health sector. To his mind, this inequity is immoral. It is not right that there is a woman who has access to all information she needs while another does not have. Those women in the lowest 20% have no access to information and the means to obtain family planning information and supplies. Population management and family planning is a poverty issue. And a true good government is one that will draw up an effective family planning program that would give Filipina a choice what is healthy for her. When he first joined the Dept. of Health in 1998, the family planning program was in a state of suspension, there was a program but it was not a great thing be cause it was just doing what it was doing in the past. It took a while for members of the Cabinet, notably Dr. Philip Medalla and Budget Sec. Dr. Diokno to convince Pres. Estrada of the fact that a good strong aggressive family planning program was a necessary component to live up to the campaign promise of "Erap Para sa Mahirap". A good basis for governing for the poor should be a good strong family planning program.
With our growth rate now, 2 million people are added each year. That means that the DOH would have to prepare resources and facilities that would take care of the additional 2 million people yearly. He mentioned that the Philippines is now already behind in the availability of quality services for the poorest of our people.
In addition to all these problems associated with the environment that does not allow women to have access to appropriate family planning method, there are also other factors. One is the incidences of violence against women, incidences of child abuse and then the death of mothers. He also stated the fact that there is now an estimated 500,000 illegal abortions every year, due to lack of information. There are other many issues on poverty and population.
One question was raised on why the family planning program of the government, previous and present, has not been effective. Dr. Romualdez narrated how the Philippines had very high population growth rate in the 1970s, which was about 3% or something and high fertility rate with average children of women being 6. That time, there was a strong family planning program adopted that brought the growth rate to under 3% p.a. Most important, it reduced the fertility rate. At around mid-80s the reduction in growth rate was not too high so there was something that forced a study. The reason cited why the government has not been effective is because it has not been reaching a group of people – the poor. At that time there was no problem on supplies but there was a problem on information, education. These were the reasons when during the mid-80s up to 90s even if the former DOH secretaries were supporters of family planning, we didn’t make any headway. There was also an ad campaign on "Kung ano ang hiyang sa iyo, yan ang pipiliin mo", where a woman is given the option. But then when the USAID said it would terminate the contraceptive supply, there is now a situation when we are running out of supply and at the same time there is no effective family planning program.
Another question was raised on the recent pronouncements of Pres. Gloria Arroyo and her stance on family planning as she has been more vocal of favoring the natural family planning method. The question focused on whether she was telling the truth or misleading the people.Dr. Pernia replied that in the paper by the UP faculty members, they touched on the real score between poverty and population as well as the distortions and misconceptions of the present administration. It was also mentioned in the paper how Pres. Arroyo at the Gen. Assembly of the UN in 2005 said that natural family planning technology was found effective compared to artificial contraception by the WHO. She added that the Population Council found that artificial contraception contributes only 2% to decline in birth rates while the combination of improving the economic condition of the family, urbanization, and breastfeeding contributes 98% to the decline of population growt h in development countries. But then Mr. Ben de Leon asked the WHO and Population Council for reaction and both WHO and Population Council of New York disavowed the statement of Pres. Arroyo at that time. Mr. de Leon added that Prof. Grace Cruz of the UP Population Institute had a "State of Philippine Population and Demographic Health" and she mentioned that there were only 51,000 using artificial method as compared to the ones using modern method which totaled 4.6 million. So really the date stated by the President is not really true.
Another question was raised on the condition of the health services in the Philippines that contribute to the lack of organized family planning in the Philippines and on the situation where the government has the fund to spend on family planning but would rather invest it in something else. Dr. Pernia stressed that the population management is a national issue and it cannot be relegated to the national government just like what Pres. Arroyo announced that she is letting the LGUs implement a family planning program in their respective jurisdiction. It is a sign of bad governance since population management is a national issue. Dr. Romualdez added that the population problem is a national concern that there is a need to develop a policy to address this on the national level.