Tuesday, December 22, 2009

All about choices

Last Tuesday I was invited to the joint Christmas party of the Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population Development and Reproductive Health Advocacy Network. The reproductive health bill may not have been passed in Congress, they said, but more Filipinos became aware of it and what it sought to do. And that, my hosts said, was a victory in itself. They gave certificates of recognition to members of the media -- including me -- who have reported on/ written about the issue and somehow sustained the debates for and against the bill.

I have written several pieces on the matter not because I want to limit the number of Filipinos. I believe, rather, that every family -- every woman -- should be able to plan and make informed choices on when she wants to bring another child into the world. Take charge, refuse to just go with flow.

How ironic it was, then, that on the day of that party, our house helper Alma told me that she was almost two months pregnant. She was nineteen and the pregnancy was unplanned. She feared her father's wrath (the family was in Pangasinan and relied partly on the money she sent them every month). She said she did not want to marry her boyfriend, whom she described as “maloko,” a milder term for a jerk.
Alma wanted to induce an abortion. She said a friend had offered to accompany her to look for the "wonder pill" that would take care of her problem. And she would do it that weekend, during her day-off.

Some of us have friends, acquaintances or even family members who have resorted to taking a few pills (usually an anti-ulcer drug, available in Manila's dingiest streets) upon learning that they were pregnant. I personally know at least three women who have done so, in varying degrees of success. These women were lucky they did not bleed themselves to death or ended up giving birth to kids with abnormalities. But these extremes happen – I am sure my NGO friends have the statistics to back it up.

I waited for the perfect opportunity to talk to Alma and tell her how I, as her employer and hopefully some sort of an older sister, felt. Much as I was pushing for empowerment via choice, I did not think that anybody had the right to terminate a life that had already started inside a woman's womb.

There were no further choices to be made now. The only point of choice was that moment when my helper decided to have unprotected sex with the jerk, and before that, when she decided to have sex with him at all regardless of possible consequences. Well, her unplanned pregnancy was a consequence of that action, and she now had to live with it.

Still, it was her life and not mine. The call was Alma's and ultimately the most I could do was to hope that her choice would be the better one. I had no authority to impose my will on her, and so that Saturday morning when she stepped out for her day off -- a trip to Quiapo, I later on learned -- I could only sigh.

I did not expect her to be back so soon. From what I've heard, these pills can make a woman bleed for several days. But two days later, there she was again at my doorstep. I asked her how she was. "Hindi natanggal, (I wasn't able to remove it), ate, ” she said. I winced at the way she referred to the baby like it was a cyst or an ingrown nail.

It's been a week since then and Alma has been moving about the house attending to her chores. I had offered her the opportunity to work until her seventh month, and to return to my house after her delivery. For now, however, she has to face the challenge of telling her parents about her condition, keeping her fingers crossed that her baby, despite those pills she took, would turn out fine.

It is sad that I have written so much about the need to make women, especially the young and the undereducated, aware that they do have a choice. Yet in my own home, my backyard, there was somebody who rushed blindly and fell anyway.

Fortunately, our fall is not our ending. Alma has the rest of her life to redeem herself, make it up to her child and make the right choices from hereon.

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