A reproductive health bill that has been in the making for more than a decade was passed in both the Philippines House of Representatives and the Senate. The House and Senate reconciled their respective versions of the bill last month and President Benigno Aquino III signed the bill into law on December 21. The bill guarantees the country’s poorest women universal and free access to modern contraceptives at government health centers. The bill also requires public schools to provide reproductive health and sexuality education and affirms the obligation to provide humane and comprehensive post-abortion care.
The passage of this bill is a great victory for the human rights of Filipino women and their families over religious ideology. This is also a victory for women living in other countries around the world where there is similar religious opposition to women’s reproductive rights.
For years the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has vehemently opposed any recognition of women’s reproductive rights—even basic access to modern contraceptives to prevent unplanned pregnancy—which has resulted in immeasurable misery for Filipino women living in poverty as well as their families, as documented in a report by the Center and its local partners, Imposing Misery: The Impact of Manila’s Contraception Ban on Women and Families. This is especially true in Manila, where an executive order has been in place since 2000 that effectively bans access to modern contraceptives. Another executive order, this one effective in late 2011, bans funding for modern contraceptives in Manila. These restrictions have received the tacit support of successive administrations, harming generations of women.
Since 2008, the Center—along with local partners—has been working to strike down the 2000 ban in a case known as Lourdes Osil v. Mayor of Manila. But because of the lack of legal accountability, the case has been languishing in the Manila Regional Trial Court for more than three years.
These executive orders violate both international law and national women’s rights legislation popularly known as the Magna Carta of Women. The United Nations Human Rights Committee recently asked the government of the Philippines to revoke the funding ban on modern contraceptives in Manila. And earlier this year, member states of the UN Human Rights Council repeatedly called on the Philippines to increase access to reproductive and sexual health information and services. They urged the government to implement—not merely pass—the Reproductive Health Bill (as it’s officially known), and to ensure appropriate funding. The Philippines accepted this recommendation, and we are asking the government to follow through. The Magna Carta of Women legally obligates the government to ensure access to modern contraceptives, but this provision remains largely unenforced. The Philippine Commission on Human Rights has recognized the Manila contraceptive ban violates the Magna Carta of Women as well as the constitution.
The Reproductive Health Bill is no doubt an important step forward in the recognition of women’s legal rights to reproductive health services in the Philippines. But the government must enforce the law for it to have the positive impact on women’s lives that is possible. Enforcement won’t be complete until the government quickly removes existing restrictions on modern contraceptives and related information, services, and funding put in place by powerful local governments such as Manila. Women have suffered far too long as it is.