Being Atenean, Supporting RH

By on February 1, 2011 in Opinion

by Risa Hontiveros

It was late 2009, and I was in Paris on a French Foreign Ministry exposure program for politicians, when Marichi Castro Guevarra e-mailed me the position paper in favor of the Reproductive Health Bill that she and about 10 other Ateneo professors had published, I cried for joy.

Finally, an acknowledgement from my alma mater that the free will it, and others teach, is a gift from God and the conscience whose formation is one of the aims of Catholic education are at play in the RH debate. That debate had been characterized by anti-RH Bill tarpaulins hung outside parish churches, homilies and prayers of the faithful against “anti-life” bills and the surreal specter of being refused Holy Communion.

No matter that Father President took the trouble afterwards to issue a statement that the position paper was not the University position on the bill. Even after that, about 70 other professors associated themselves with Marichi’s [Guevarra] pioneering paper. In prophetic character, it was like the young Ateneans’ “Down from the Hill” in The GUIDON four decades earlier. Finally, my beloved Ateneo had broken its silence about what is one of the battles of our lifetime—as women, as Filipinos, as Catholics.

We went through a bruising election campaign soon after, in which not only “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap,” but other rallying cries such as agrarian reform, security of tenure and, yes, reproductive health drew the lines of battle within and outside Noynoy Aquino’s reform coalition.

The CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Family and Life unilaterally—without discussion by and the mandate of the Conference as a whole—issued electoral guidelines that it would be wrong for Catholics to support pro-RH candidates, regardless of their position on other national issues. I met so many women during the campaign whose good faith and desire for reforms and policy changes at the national level resonated intimately with our gender concerns: reproductive health, support for single mothers, child support and more. The mainstreaming of the RH debate during the campaign helped unmask the myth of the Catholic vote. I missed being elected to the Senate by one rank, but more than 9 million Filipinos cast their votes for that “magandang laban,” not only inspite of the RH controversy, but also precisely because of the steadfast advocacy of a law and program that champions women, choice and life.

Through Representatives Walden Bello and Kaka Bag-ao, Akbayan re-filed our Reproductive Health Bill as House Bill 513 at the start of the 15th Congress. This time around, we had the support of the President for responsible parenthood with choice as its motive force. Carlos Celdran’s providential and courageous Damaso demonstration and the CBCP’s wondering aloud about excommunicating President Noy electrified the RH debate. Now the five RH Bills in the House are being consolidated in the technical working group stage, and we advocates are suiting up to go into plenary interpellation and debate with the substitute bill.

Why all the passion for RH? Sex is the first thing ascertained about us when we are born: Is it a boy or a girl? There is an umbilical cord linking women’s self-determination in our bodies, the sustainability of Mother Nature and the sovereignty of the motherland—all feminine imperatives. I wondered why, after all this time that the Catholic Church hierarchy had ignored or opposed many women’s concerns, it was suddenly so concerned about our uteruses.

During our married life, my late husband and I practiced natural family planning. I have four children, three of them girls. I want every other woman—including my daughters—and couple to have the choice I had. We cannot impose our personal ethics on every other individual and couple. For example, urban poor who have one-room homes and few moments of privacy, or overseas Filipino workers and their spouses whose intimate moments are constricted enough by the schedules of vacations home in the middle of contractual work.

Eleven women die every day from the lack of reproductive health information, services and supplies. Many of them die from complications of the 400,000 to 800,000 abortions every year in the Philippines. We are in the middle of an abortion crisis, mostly of unwanted, unplanned or ill-timed pregnancies, due to the lack of an RH law and program. We will probably achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on reducing infant mortality—except for newborns—but we will probably not achieve the MDG on reducing maternal mortality. It is heartbreaking and leaves one incredulous that we are able to save the lives of our infants but not that of our mothers.

In an enlightened home, a child could conceivably ask about sexuality and even sex from the time he or she is verbal, and we enlightened adults would be able to engage the child at his or her level. But surveys reveal that most Filipino parents are not willing or able to talk about sex with their children.

So rather than young people “learning” about sex from their peers who may know as little as they do or from the media or internet without guidance, we might as well mandate and train our teachers to be partners of the parents in this humanistic task. Besides, at about age 12 or Grade 5, young people are entering puberty, and should understand the changes they are undergoing so as to have a positive self-image and the other bases for joyful, healthy and responsible relationships later in life. That is what age-appropriate RH and sexuality education would enable.

Family planning, then responsible parenthood, and now reproductive health bills have been filed in Congress for the last six Congresses, or 18 years and counting. I hope that it will in this 15th Congress finally debut as a law that will save and enhance women’s lives, uphold conscientious choice and make life more truly human in our society.

Journalist, activist and former Akbayan representative, Risa Hontiveros graduated cum laude from the AB Social Sciences program in 1987. She was also the Departmental Awardee of her batch. Besides reproductive health, she has advocated women’s and students’ rights, cheaper medicines and agrarian reform, among others, in the halls of Congress.



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