Church opposition stalling Reproductive Health Law
MANILA, Philippines — The Catholic Church’s staunch opposition to the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act has stalled the law’s enforcement for the last seven years, to the detriment of millions of women and their families.
Since the enactment in December 2012 of Republic Act No. 10354, the Reproductive Health (RH) Law, the Church and other religious and allied groups have hindered its rollout by questioning in the Supreme Court its constitutionality, invoking the state’s responsibility to protect the life of the unborn child.
It would take the high court more than a year to rule in April 2014 that the law was not unconstitutional.
Sanctions struck down
It, however, struck down eight provisions, including the one that sanctions public officials who refuse to support reproductive health programs or hinder their implementation.
Religious groups, led by the Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines Inc., didn’t stop there, though, as they later sought to stop the government from distributing contraceptives, alleging that these were abortifacients.
The high court granted the group’s petition in June 2015 when it issued a temporary restraining order that barred the Department of Health (DOH) from acquiring and distributing contraceptives Implanon and Implanon NXT till the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared these as nonabortifacients.
The order effectively “required the FDA to suspend its certification/recertification of all contraceptives” as the DOH-attached agency said at the time that it was “tasked to revise all the relevant procedure[s] and implementing rules and regulations” covering contraceptives.
“The result was that the speedy and effective implementation of the [Reproductive Health] Law has been stalled in the meantime,” the FDA said in a statement in July 2017.
Four months later, in November 2017, the temporary restraining order was lifted after the FDA issued an advisory stating that all 51 contraceptives it had tested, including the two questioned by the religious sector, were nonabortifacients.
But the religious groups didn’t give up, raising the FDA advisory to the Court of Appeals.
Their motion for reconsideration was, however, denied in June 2018 for their failure to exhaust all administrative remedies.
The appellate court said the appeal should have been filed with the Office of the President.
Because of the legal hurdles, the country fell short of meeting its target this year of having a contraceptive use rate of 50 percent.
Currently, contraceptive use in the Philippines stands at only 40 percent.
The country is also still way behind its 2022 goal of a contraceptive prevalence rate of 65 percent, or more than 11.3 million women who are into modern and effective family planning methods.
At such rate, more than 4.1 million unintended pregnancies and around 2.4 million abortions could be prevented over a four-year period, according to the Commission on Population and Development (Popcom).
Drop in fertility rate
Despite the hiccups, the government remained optimistic that the benefits of the Reproductive Health Law would soon be felt by the public, especially after the country’s total fertility rate dropped to 2.7 percent in 2017 from 3.3 percent in 2008.
“Filipinos growing by about 2 million annually remains a critical challenge to socioeconomic development. The higher the fertility rate, the higher the poverty incidence,” Popcom National Capital Region director Lydio Español said.
For the last half of the Duterte administration, Español said the challenge that remained was fulfilling the population’s unmet needs for modern family planning, which is still at 17 percent.
Dealing with that would prove to be arduous given that among the factors that come into play are misinformation on contraceptives, as well as long-standing cultural and religious beliefs.
“The message of the government is clear. It is not forcing [families] to achieve a desired number of children, but we are providing access to services so you could come up to an informed choice. It’s also a way to alleviate poverty,” he said.