Friday, September 5, 2008

Letter to the Editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

Dear Editor,

I have been following the Inquirer's coverage on the reproductive health controversy over the past weeks. I wish to commend the commentary by John J. Caroll, S.J., entitled, "Facts and fallacies in the population debate"( I admire his willingness to correct "loose argumentation" on the part of those who he believes are arguing for the position of the Roman Catholic Church.

I agree with Fr. Carroll on most of his points. As early as 1994 at the UN International Conference of Population and Development, I had already agreed with former Philippine ambassador to the Holy See, Henrietta “Tita” T. De Villa, that women advocates should have a sincere dialogue with the Bishops on the matter. That dialogue never materialized. But if it does, Fr. Carroll should be one of the participants.

The Inquirer is also to be commended when it confirmed the complaint of Prof. Ernie Pernia ( that their reporter had misquoted the UP School of Economics (UPSE) position ( on the relation between poverty and family size. This is important because the letter of to the editor of Marita F. Wasan ( took exception to the UPSE paper on the basis of the inaccuracy. Fr. Carroll in his article corrects Kit Tatad's argumentation about the same thing.

If nothing else, the debate reminds everyone to check facts. I do not think this is a requirement merely for journalists and academics. I think it is a requirement of good citizenship. National debates guided by clear argumentation and factual accuracy can be the only basis for an enlightened social policy on these and other controversial matters.

Thus, my disappointment that in a letter to the editor that came out on the same day as Fr. Carroll’s commentary (, Imelda LL. Areolla makes the factually inaccurate claim that the use of condoms will not stop the spread of HIV and that, "The microscopic holes in condoms are large enough for the AIDS virus to pass through."

The World Health Organization has condemned this misinformation saying, ‘These incorrect statements about condoms and HIV are dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic which has already killed more than 20 million people, and currently affects at least 42 million.’ It said ‘consistent and correct’ condom use reduces the risk of HIV infection by 90%. There may be breakage or slippage of condoms – but not holes through which the virus can pass. (For a summary of the scientific information and the WHO position on the matter of condom use and HIV prevention go to:

Ms. Areolla's article also resorts to the loose argumentation Fr. Carroll decries. First, she misrepresents HIV-AIDS prevention programs as mainly condom distribution. The literature shows that several programmatic elements are recommended (in some programs this includes an emphasis on abstinence and chastity). The scientific literature on “abstinence only” programs also shows that these do not prevent pre-marital sex, let alone sexually transmitted infections.

Secondly, her idea that sex education simply tells adolescents that sex is safe when they use contraceptives is wrong. She further gives the false impression that the adolescent sex education advocated by the medical community is one that does not emphasize values. Sex education for adolescents should teach them about the biology and physiology of many aspects of sexuality and should be explicit about sexual intercourse, prevention of transmission of sexually transmitted infections and contraception. When I teach to various audiences, I also include a discussion about moral frameworks (both secular and religious) that people might want to consider when looking at these matters. Whether only Catholic values of reticence about sexual acts, abstinence before marriage and non-contraception in marriage should prevail in a secular education system is another matter altogether.

My last point is that the Inquirer itself (and the entire profession of journalism) needs to remain self-reflective about what the Inquirer terms as “balanced views”. Is it “balanced” to give equal treatment to views supported by weight of scientific data (e.g. condoms prevent HIV-AIDS) and views supported by the inevitably errant experiments in science (e.g condoms have holes that allow the virus to pass through)? I would argue that giving both views equal space, leads to dangerous results, and does not uphold the highest standards of journalism.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Governor Palin

Whoa. A woman candidate for Vice President on the Republican ticket! Hello, 21st century.

She is a member of "feminists for life" or something like that. Conservatives are funny that way. They have managed to make feminism a bad word, yet are not afraid to use it if it will make them pretty. Anyway this pro-life woman is also pro-gun. Tricky ground. I understand pro-gun advocates uphold people's rights to bear guns as a form of self-defense and legitimate hunting. So the nuance here is that she defends the life that is in fetuses but not the life in legitimately hunted Alaskan wolves?

I have no idea what she has against wolves. Except maybe that wild women and wolves have been put together in the popular imagination by feminist writers. Kidding aside, I do wonder what she intends to do with the fact that gun ownership leads to the killings of human beings. Does she know for example that fetuses die when husbands shoot their pregnant wives with those guns they are supposed to use to defend themselves and hunt? What shall we do? Allow fetuses to bear guns? Fetuses are persons remember? That is why they are supposed to be protected from their mother's bad intentions even when in the mother's wombs. (And give those mothers some family values while we are at it!)

I assume that she is for the family values that those Republicans keep talking about. Here is the family values story: mother, father, children. Children not told too much about sex. Innocent children abstain from sex which they know nothing about. Innocent children fall in love in romantic asexual way to persons of the opposite sex. They fall in love at some appropriate age. The appropriate age being older for the man (he has to sow a few wild oats you know, boys being boys) than the woman (that biological clock ticks and urges women to complete their womanhood by becoming mothers). The love deepens, becomes committed. They seek God's blessing of this God-created love by marriage. They discover sex during marriage. They realize heterosexual sex is precisely the God-given way of sex because heterosexual sex is the only way to create God-given children. They have fun sex within marriage only. Fun sex (with no contraceptives if they are Catholic) may lead to children (inevitable if they have no contraceptives) whom they will accept with boundless joy each and every time.

But then there is this news report that her teenage daughter is pregnant out of wedlock. She intends to keep the child according to reports and marry the father. Oh, okay?!? Here is the nuance then: if the child gets some of the story line wrong (the part about discovering sex only after marriage) she may redeem herself by catching up with the storyline--marry the guy so we can all have the happy ending we want.

Pro-family values. Palin's children have to understand that mother and father know best. I hope her daughter has learned this lesson now.

I hope all those other kids have learned their lesson now. You get to be parents first, then you can ignore the lessons that your children's lives are actually trying to teach you. Child learns lessons from parents--- period. It isn't a two-way street.

I see this all the time. The gay, lesbian and bisexual kids I have to help so that they can survive in families who insist that they tow the conservative family values storyline. The post-botched-illegal-abortion care I have to provide children of the pro-life families. All of this done in secret, so that their mothers can smile at me confidently when they label me immoral for upholding reproductive and sexual rights.

But is Palin conservative enough? After all, what is she doing in the Governor's office? This is so unlike the ideal of conservative family values: the stay-at-home mother. Perhaps the nuance is: she is Governor because she had to leave the home in order to go drill for oil in the Arctic.

I wonder why conservatives love virginity and prisitine cleanliness more in women than in business and politics.

But then, no one should listen to brown-faced, third world me. After all I should mind my own business. Except that the last time I looked the Republicans launched a "war on terror" that has changed the politics of Islam even in Mindanao, and sought to curtail women's reproductive rights in the United Nations. I also can't help myself from caring about idiocies that put American security at greater risk while they proclaim that they are doing these things to protect Americans. Hey, I have quite a number of friends living in the U.S. Hey, I honestly feel strong solidarity for all the peoples of the world, including American citizens. Hey, it is to my detriment when powerful nations do stupid things in the world.

Am I supposed to be happy with Governor Palin's claim that her candidacy has to do with women breaking the glass ceiling? Does she really think that this invocation of hers will rally those 16 million who voted for Hillary, to vote for the Republican ticket instead?

It's not so 21st century after all. Memo to John McCain: we don't need women in the White House. We need feminists there. The one's that don't misuse the term by labeling themselves feminist, and go on to uphold patriarchy at every turn.

Palin's nomination is a cynical attempt to rally the women's vote while pandering to the conservatives. For shame!

Coming home

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Yesterday I had a nostalgic dream while sleeping off jet lag. I dreamt that my brother, who in his later years was estranged from the family in our own unhappy way, was alive and well. He was also his good self, the part I no longer saw for the last decade of his life.

He had come to pick me up from an apartment where I was staying. Why I was staying apart, is not in the dream. And where I was staying was unclear. But we walked through the neighborhood as we had done so many times during my childhood---me following him so we could get home. He showed me a new shortcut too.

The house was empty when we got there but I had the sense that soon, my mother and father and my sister would be in. An ordinary day in the life of one of those usually happy families which are the same world over.

And that was the end if the dream. But the waking up was difficult. My brother, father and mother are no longer alive, and waking up made me realize how much I have lost just because life has taken its course.

We have been plodding on, my sister and I, the last two standing. The way we see it, we have a bit more to go. Ordinarily we are brave girls. Ordinarily there can be no bellyaching between us because life remains worth living and joyful. We are also under very strict instructions from my mother (the kind of instructions drilled into you from your first breastfeeding) that sentimentality about one's particular life situation is nothing more than self-conceit. Being human and alive is wonderful, joyous and marvelous. However there are, as Omar Khayam has said, "millions of bubbles like us". Nothing is very interesting or uplifting about anyone's particular bubble.

The dream reminds me of yet another of mother's admirable traits: she was an agnostic who was not afraid to die. She joked about it on the day of her death to her cardiologist, "this is a serious condition I have, right? It could kill me?" And it did.

She would look at the fear of death in our Catholic dominated society and say, "if I knew there was an afterlife why would I be afraid to die? I don't know for sure, and yet I am ready."

When asked about dying, my father took a different tack. He told me that all life comes from a limited set of carbon atoms. He says it would be selfish to keep our carbon atoms to ourselves forever and not give other life forms a chance.

So why do I break my mother's rules and write about this dream, so peculiar to me and therefore so uninteresting to others? Because it reminded about a principle of living well: do not be afraid to die.

This is not an appeal for dangerous behavior. It is an appeal for liberating the self from conceit and supersition. Many religious traditions and my non-religious agnostic one, remind us that many fears (and a whole lot of irritating behavior and bad manners) are born out of thinking that you are more important than the minor blip that you really are in the cosmic story.

My dream reminds me that immortality would become unbearable because life, for all it's joys, is also wearying.

So I will, as a poet once said, warm my hands before the fire of life, but depart without fuss when the fire wanes.

Tonight though, I hope I will have that dream I have about flying. I fly, really fly.

What would we do without our dreams?