A historic birth control law that took effect Thursday after years of opposition from the Catholic Church came too late for Rosalie Cabenan, a housewife who has given birth 22 times.
Frail, with a leathery face streaked with wrinkles, the 48-year-old Cabenan suffers from untreated gallstones and constant fatigue because her body has never had the time to properly recover from her successive pregnancies.
“We only wanted three children. But they kept coming and coming,” Cabenan told AFP this week at her ramshackle home in Baseco, a massive slum in Tondo, Manila, where more than 60,000 people compete for space.
“I was always pregnant and there was no time to take care of myself because I had to keep working to help my husband feed the children. I have tried everything, a stevedore (dock worker), a laundry woman, fish monger and a vegetable seller,” she said.
Mother at 14
Cabenan had her first child when she was just 14. When she nearly died giving birth to her youngest, who is now six, she finally abandoned the demands of the Church to not use contraceptives.
A devout Catholic who still goes to mass twice a week, Cabenan nevertheless regrets following the Church dogma so strictly and said she welcomed the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 that officially took effect Thursday.
“I tell women now, please do not be like me. I have too many children, and sometimes I do not know what to do and just cry, especially when they fight,” she said.
Although the law took effect as of Thursday, Hazel Chua, an official at the Department of Health’s family planning unit, said they were still preparing implementing rules and regulations, which will only be released in April.
Under the law, government health centers will have to have a supply of contraceptives, unlike in the past when local mayors could be intimidated by the Church into not providing birth control services, she said.
The law requires government health centers to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, benefiting tens of millions of the country’s poor who would not otherwise be able to afford or have access to them.
It also mandates that sex education be taught in schools and public health workers receive family planning training, while post-abortion medical care has been made legal for the first time.
Proponents say the law will slow the country’s rapid population growth, cut widespread poverty and reduce the number of mothers dying at childbirth.
“This is a triumph for poor women and girls who would otherwise have no access to these things,” said the United Nations Population Fund’s country representative, Ugochi Daniels.
The Philippines has one of the highest birth rates in the world—3.1 for every woman—and the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Asia-Pacific, according to the medical charity group Merlin.
The Catholic Church, which counts 80 percent of the Philippines’ 100 million people as its followers, had for more than a decade successfully lobbied and intimidated politicians into blocking probirth control bills in Congress.
However President Aquino, a bachelor who is one of the most popular leaders in the country’s history, used his political capital to defy the Church and help steer the reproductive health bill through Congress last year.
The Church, which disallows the use of artificial contraceptives, has continued to resist, warning prolife politicians they will be targeted in midterm elections this year and backing various groups’ legal challenges to the law.
Catholic groups have shifted the battle to the courts, filing petitions with the Supreme Court questioning the law’s constitutionality.
The law’s chief author, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, said he was confident the high court would uphold the change.
Asked to comment on the plight of Cabenan, one of the groups that filed a petition with Supreme Court said her 22 children should be a cause for celebration and not regret.
“Children are never a liability.
In fact, in the provinces, the more children you have, the more it is considered a gift,” said Serve Life spokesperson Anthony Lanicao.
He also said couples with so many unwanted children were “partly at fault” because they should have checked their sexual urges.
For Cabenan, however, Church leaders are partly to blame.
“They tell you to go forth and multiply, but now when you ask for help, they just pass you by,” she said. AFP