Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Support for the RH Bill

Intervention of Dr. Sylvia Estrada Claudio Director, University of the Philippines Center for Women's Studies at the Second Deliberation of the House Committee of Population and Family Relations on HB 96, 101, 513 1160, 1520 and 3387. December 1, 2010.

Thank you Mr. Chair, your Honors.

I have a prepared statement today but let me respond to the questions posed to the medical doctors by Representatives Biazon and Golez on the issue of when life begins.

I note that the Chair called upon me because Rep. Biazon also asked who does not believe life begins at fertilization. I do not, for two reasons. The first reason is that as an agnostic I do not subscribe to the beliefs of the Catholic Church. In this regard I would like to remind everyone that the Constitutional provision on religious freedom protects not just the right to belief but also the right to non-belief. But I will leave the representative of the Filipino Freethinkers who is also here today to elaborate this point.

The second reason I do not believe that life begins at fertilization has to do with my expertise as a medical doctor. Rep. Golez states that as a medical practitioner, he believes life begins at fertilization. He cites among other things the banning of Levenorgestrel by the government as proof that other experts believe the same thing. He implies that obstetricians and gynecologists may not be the best resource as to whether drugs like Levenorgestrel and other contraceptives are abortifacient. According to Rep. Golez, it should be those experts, like geneticists and biochemists, who do not prescribe these substances or devices who should be consulted.

With all due respect, I will remind Rep. Golez that the government reveresed its ban on Levonorgestrel. I was one of those who petitioned for a reconsideration of the ban through one of the organizations I work with. An expert committee composed of both medical and legal luminaries decided unanimously that Levonorgestrel was not an abortifacient. To be accurate there was one dissenting opinion and it was that of Rep. Golez. But at that time we protested the inclusion of his opinion because he really was not a member of the panel. At that time, he was merely the person from the DOH assigned to facilitate the hearings and panel deliberations.

As a medical doctor also, I would urge everyone here not to overvalue our opinions and expertise. Doctors should also be more humble. The question of when life begins is not a matter to be left to doctors or other scientists alone. Pertinent to this discussion I would like to note that “conception” is not a medical term. The terms fertilization and implantation are medical terms and we can describe and explain these processes to lay people. Any scientific discussion requires the precise use of terms. The Philippine Obstetrics and Gynecological Society is correct when it states that the mainstream medical and scientific community agrees that pregnancy begins at implantation.

As many of you in this room know, this is at the very least, the 4th Congress where an RH bill has been proposed. Many of us here have faced each other on this issue before. I do recognize though that there are people here who are new to the issue and their voices must be heard.

But perhaps before we continue our debates we should congratulate ourselves. Because of the engaged citizenship that the proposed RH bills have evoked, we are on the brink of enacting a social policy that has been understood by our people and crafted with their input.

So all I ask of your honors is to trust our people who have indeed come to a decision. Today's headline of a leading newspaper reveals that a high level of support exists for the enactment of the proposed RH bills according to a non-commissioned survey conducted by a reliable polling organization. This verifies an earlier survey showing the same results except that the newest survey shows higher levels of support for the bill.

Contrary to the claims of those who would belittle the survey results, it also shows that our people are aware of the major provisions of the proposed bills.

As an advocate for women's rights, I too must listen to our people. Like the Catholic Church I am against any form of population control either as a framework for an RH law and certainly not as a goal for its implementation.

Like the Church I do not think that lowering the fertility rate has any direct effect on poverty levels at the macro level. I disagree with the Church because I think that having less children does mitigate the burden of poverty at the level of the family.

My involvement with the women's health movement began because I felt there was a need to protect women from the population control programs of the past. This is the reason why I, and many other feminists, participated in the international actions that led up to the 1994 Program of Action of the ICPD.

I would therefore caution both sides who use demographic arguments like population density and replacement numbers to argue for or against the bill. Women have been hurt on both sides of this argument. Some would have us not give birth and others would force us into pregnancy. These are both violations of women's rights. Speaking again as a practitioner, I would caution against the use of any drug, device or technology for considerations other than a woman's well-being.

My support for an RH bill has always been because I am heartbroken by the harm and death that the lack of services brings to women and their families. No woman should die because of the lack of emergency obstetric services or due to violence from her intimate partner. No family should be left motherless because of preventable deaths.

I see the surveys. The Filipino people like the proposed bills. They agree with arguments for reducing population numbers in order to ensure the delivery services and national development.

Your honors, I accept the reasoning and judgment of our people. I hope you will too. Please pass a consolidated and comprehensive reproductive health bill as soon as possible.

Thank you.

NB Upon reviewing the decision of the technical committee that convened to hear our petition to lift the ban on Levonorgestrel, I realized I was mistaken in claiming that the committee was unanimous in its decision. There was one dissenting opinion. Anthony Golez also gave a dissenting opinion but I still hold the opinion that he should not have done this and that he acted beyond the role assigned to him in doing so.

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