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Health experts condemn bishops' anti-contraception stance

Opposition to Philippines' RH Law may add to HIV cases, they claim

Health experts condemn bishops' anti-contraception stance

Women supporters of the Reproductive Health Law demonstrate outside the Supreme Court building in Manila (Photo by Rene Sandajan)

Joe Torres, Manila

February 17, 2014

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Health experts in the Philippines have warned that stalling the implementation of the Reproductive Health (RH) Law, which is being opposed by Catholic bishops, will only worsen the growing number of cases of HIV in the country.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona said that while the implementation of the RH law is still pending, Filipinos lack appropriate services that can save their lives. "The message is we should not derail the provision of appropriate services," Ona said.

The implementation of the law, which was passed in December 2012, has been delayed after opponents, many of them Catholic, filed petitions before the court to block it.

To date, there are 15 petitions by various groups opposed to the law before the Supreme Court.

However Dr. Ruben Siapno, assistant regional director of the health department in Manila, said family planning services can still be provided even if the law is declared unconstitutional.

"We will still provide maternal health care and other services and also [educate] the parents how to care for their children, parenting and all these things," he said, adding that funding for contraceptives and instruction of young people on sexual health is a necessary requirement.

The country's Catholic bishops said the Supreme Court should still go slow in coming out with a decision on the controversial Reproductive Health Law that will allow state funding for contraception.

"I hope [the judges] are really weighing and studying this issue because the moment they declare [the law] constitutional or unconstitutional will be a defining moment for our Supreme Court," said Fr Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.

Bishop Leonardo Medroso of Tagbilaran also called on the Supreme Court not to be pressured by Congress in coming out with a decision on the law.

"[The decision] cannot be hurried up," Medroso said in an interview. 

The Philippines remains one of three countries in Asia where HIV is worsening, with an increase of 820 percent from 2001 to 2010.

Most Filipinos living with HIV are young male adults aged 20 to 29. Data from the Health Department shows that from only 59 in 2010, the reported number of Filipinos with HIV in that age bracket jumped to 295 in October 2013.

Congresswomen Luzviminda Ilagan, of the women's party Gabriela, said the rise in HIV cases in the country is attributed to "utter lack of education about its nature and modes of transmission. This ignorance begets irresponsible sexual behavior. The unequal relationship between men and women prevents women from demanding the use of condoms. Actually, the RH Law can help a lot," Ilagan said. 

Church leaders opposed to the law, however, maintained that it is "anti-life", due to provisions promoting artificial contraceptives.

Last week, leaders of the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives called on the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of law, saying an adverse ruling would be a veto over the will of the majority.

"We must consider that passage of this law took 13 years and about four months. It was realized despite pressure from religious groups and other sectors who worked just as hard to raise their issues against the measure," Belmonte said in a statement.

Some legislators at the House of Representatives, however, expect the Supreme Court to declare the law unconstitutional.

"The Supreme Court will always uphold the rule of law. I believe that our justices will rule according to what our Constitution provides," said Congressman Lito Atienza, who voted against the passage of the law in 2012.

Atienza said that while legislators who voted for the passage of the law represent "a broad spectrum of society," it is not representative of the people's will but that of "reproductive health proponents."

He said the law will only impose on Filipinos the "contraceptive mentality by making sex education part of the curriculum of elementary and high school students and even penalizing those who will refuse to follow its provisions."

The Philippines has also the highest teen pregnancy rate in Southeast Asia. About 5,300 mothers die from child birth every year, according to government figures.

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