published 12 Oct 2009, Manila Standard Today

What do the Jesus is Lord Movement, the Iglesia Ni Cristo, the Office of Muslim Affairs, the Council of Christian Bishops of the Philippines, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, the Philippines for Jesus Movement, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, the International Bible Society, the Christian and Missionary Alliance Churches of the Philippines, the Living Epistle Christian Family, the Baptist Conference of the Philippines and some Catholic INDIVIDUALS have in common?

These churches, religious groups and people are members of the Interfaith Partnership for the Promotion of Responsible Parenthood,a group that envisions an abundant and healthy life for each Filipino family.

This is the same group that held a forum Friday to urge Congress to immediately pass House Bill 5043, also known as the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act.

There’s only a few more days until Congress goes on recess. Upon their return, lawmakers will resume budget hearings. The deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy for the May 2010 elections will also come to pass. And then Christmas and New Year holidays will be upon us. After that, everybody will be on election mode. The urgency with which House Speaker Prospero Nograles spoke of the bill to his colleagues has come and gone. There are those who believe somebody received a phone call from someone, so that’s it. In short, there is not much time—or hope.

But hope is a virtue, and the interfaith council is supposedly composed of men and women of prayer. Catholicism may be the predominant religion in the country but certainly no group can claim monopoly of piety and good intentions.

One can always accept arguments for or against issues based on religious and moral convictions. Everybody has the right to his own opinion. But it’s sickening to see how the hierarchy of a single denomination dangles its apparently almighty persuasive powers (on its flock) to politicians whose minds are already on campaigning—and winning.

It’s even more sickening how these would-be candidates compromise their personal beliefs and fold up to threats made by some Church leaders. These politicians base their decisions on what would be good for them and disregard what their constituents—whom they are supposed to represent in the first place—feel and think.

The country’s overpopulation is just one of many ills. There is poverty, lack of education, poor healthcare, environmental degradation, joblessness. There’s misgovernance, loss of dignity, a breakdown in values. These problems do not come in neat, separate boxes. Often they overlap, causing and being affected by each other. The controversial bill is by no means the answer to all of these. But its passage would send the right message. Its emphasis, not per se in using this or that method of contraception, but in giving Filipino families the chance to make informed choices, is truly empowering.

And so when we say that the Church is against the reproductive health bill,we just may be committing a mistake. The fact is that many other Churches do support it.

Ustadz Ahmad Barcelon, for instance, an Imam who claims he speaks for all the Muslims in the country, says he supports the bill because there is nothing in it, nor in its objectives, that violates the Koran. “We are taught to protect the self and the family,” he says, and the bill seeks to do just that. They also frown upon brothers who sire children but are unable to support them. “They are uneducated, and misled.”

In fact, the bill is many times over more significant than changing the Constitution, says Mr. Barcelon. Sadly, our lawmakers and other powers-that-be have other priorities. “We should act now,” he says. “It may be too late tomorrow.”

Bishop Rodrigo Tano, chairman of the interfaith group’s Board of Trustees and chairman of the Philippine Association of Bible and Theological Schools, read the group’s resolution that urges members of Congress to pass the bill “upholding the transcendent and infinite dignity and worth of the human person and abundant life for every Filipino.”


Actually,the forum was not limited to the controversial bill. One of the speakers, American Jeri Gunderson, who has been living in the Philippines since 1987, talked about how we subject women and the family to unbelievable stresses. Gunderson runs Shiphrah Birthing Home in Taytay, Rizal, where at least 500 babies are born every year. A midwife, she also holds a masters degree in community development and is now shooting for her PhD. She is a minister, a counselor, a “kapatid” to the many poor women she comes in contact with every day. Gunderson may be a foreigner, she says, but she’s “in the trenches with them all.”

Gunderson’s work in the birthing home enables her to witness firsthand how women in general sacrifice to keep the family together. She comes into contact with women about to deliver their ninth, or twelfth, children and learns that these mothers don’t like being unable to provide for these children. The fact is that they don’t believe they have a choice, even if it was their own body involved. Where is the dignity if the woman allows herself to be “used” by her partner and then give birth in the most inhumane way possible? And indeed, being in the delivery ward of some public hospitals is like being in a meat shop, and the air is full of verbal abuse from the overworked, underpaid hospital staff. Thus the experience of bringing forth children into the world does not become the glorious event it should be. Gunderson hopes that the birthing home (“I do not own it; it owns me!”) makes even a slight difference.

Reproductive health, then, stops being a legislative and a political issue but an intimate matter between husband and wife, or if there is no such level of connection, between the woman and her counselor. Gunderson is so passionate about her message that she talks on, throwing occasional Tagalog words into her discourse, despite a brownout—in the dark and without a mic. She would have talked away even if the generator has not been switched on... and the audience would have remained captive, anyway.

She is riled and so must we be. We say the woman is the light of the home and the heartbeat of the family. But in most families, the pressure on the woman is just too daunting. “It is she who somehow has to make it work, make the money stretch, make relationships work. It is she whom society holds responsible for inconvenient or unwanted pregnancy. She is to be accountable for her eggs while men are held to little account for how they distribute their sperm. She is at once to be the paragon of virtue while at the same time held suspect by societies as the latent whore,” Gunderson says.

The doublespeak extends to how the family is viewed—and treated. We all say the family, the basic unit of society, must be protected at all costs. But what does a chauvinistic society do? It implicitly allows the violation of marital vows by not seeing an occasional one-night stand as a threat to the family. “Mostly monogamous” seems okay. And what does an economically driven community push families into doing? Breadwinners (fathers and mothers both) are rewarded for spending so much time at work, being away even from each other and leaving the children in the company of the hired help. Those who cannot even find work opportunities here go abroad and become absentee spouses and parents. Even schools and churches exert demands that sometimes take precious time away from family members.

And yet we say that’s just the way it is. But is it how they should be? Maybe it would serve us all well if we just do as we say.