Supreme irony and a desperate plea

Manila Standard Today, July 18 2012

There were hardly any television cameras deployed to the Baseco Covered Court last Wednesday, July 11, to cover the Family Planning Fair organized by Likhaan Center for Women’s Health.

On that day, more than 1,000 women from the barangays of Baseco, Parola and San Nicolas – the most populous villages in the city of Manila — trooped to the compound to avail themselves of free reproductive health consultations with and services by at least 45 doctors, midwives and nurses.

The absence of attention could be because the fair took place the day after the death of the country’s top comedian, Dolphy. Dolphy’s death was big news and everybody wanted to see the tributes, the grief, the personalities.

It could, however, point to something deeper, more fundamental.

The stories of the women seeking free help at the fair bolster the argument for the reproductive health bill, which remains pending at both Houses of Congress more than a decade after it was first proposed. As a result, the Philippines has yet to have a national reproductive health/ family planning program.

At the same time, the number of mothers dying of pregnancy related complications has risen from 162 out of 100,000 live births (2006) to 221 (2011). It has not only “not improved”; it has actually worsened. Five hundred thousand abortions are performed every year despite its illegality and danger.

Still, the bill remains hostage to power bargaining between decision makers and kingmakers. Members of the Catholic Church use the pulpit to demonize the authors and supporters of the bill and tell the faithful that RH, per se, is a sin against God.

Doctor Junice Melgar, executive director of Likhaan, acknowledges that President Benigno Aquino III has made a social contract with the Filipino people to provide couples the opportunity to make informed choices in planning their families. Alas, it has been purely rhetoric. “I am not anymore certain about the political will of those in power,” Melgar says. “The bottom line here is the decisiveness of President. His action will show the strength of his character.”

First it was the distraction of the impeachment of former Chief Justice Corona. Now we have the standoff with China over Scarborough Shoal. Soon, preparations for the May 2013 elections will take much of our leaders’ time and energy.

When will it be a good time for RH?

In fact, Melgar continues, many aspects of the bill have been opened up for amendments. For instance, it is clear that the bill does not include or endorse the use of abortifacients. Reproductive education will be part of the curriculum upon the sixth grade (the President’s idea). There is a provision for conscientious objection. It is stated that both natural and artificial means of contraception will be promoted. Nobody will be made to use, or will be prevented from using, artificial means if it runs counter to one’s personal beliefs.


Melgar, a general practitioner, has had a close brush with maternal mortality – her own.

She and her husband joined the underground movement from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. In 1989, when they were living in Iloilo, she discovered that she was pregnant. She went about her pregnancy without getting pre-natal care out of fear that they would be tracked.

She insisted on delivering her child at a house in Quezon City, with only her mother, a doctor herself, assisting her. The nine-pound heavy child was born a “blue baby” after Melgar suffered protracted labor. The placenta was trapped inside her uterus and she lost copious amounts of blood.

She eventually agreed to be brought to the hospital.

“If that could happen to me, who did not go to the hospital by choice, it could happen to others who want to get medical care but can’t,” Melgar says. She suffered neurological problems for six months. “I did not think I will ever be the same.”

Her son is now 23.

Now Melgar wonders what stories, what faces, what drama it would take for our leaders in government, and the Church, to acknowledge that poor Filipino women – those who don’t know any better but wish to, or don’t even know that they should – are suffering from the lack of access to information, sometimes paying with their lives.

But nothing seems to move our leaders, not even if they used to champion RH. Melgar refers to the “mystifying silence” of House Speaker Sonny Belmonte, who does not seem to have the leadership to get his colleagues to vote upon the issue.

Then again, the President can easily tell him to.

Melgar narrates that on the day of the Baseco fair, there was a wake being held for a young mother who had died from pregnancy-related complications.

What supreme irony, Melgar says, that many people claim to be “pro-life” while consigning millions of poor Filipino women to darkness, even death.

Not sensational enough for a newscast, perhaps, but it is happening anyway, every day.