The proposed Philippine Reproductive Health Bill (RH Bill) is so hot a topic at the moment that I can’t even open my Facebook without reading some kind of update from someone about it. Most Filipinos like myself, were raised as Catholics so discussing anything to do with shhh… sex openly can become too uncomfortable and it is basically a no-go zone for people in our society. Just thinking about it makes a few people a bit squeamish. This is precisely the reason why any attempts at opening a discussion on controlling Philippine population through artificial contraception can be easily shut down by the Moral Police. The “Moral Police” or the religious zealots can instantly make you feel immoral just by them saying “it is immoral” to even think about using any contraceptives to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
The topic has come to the attention of a few more Filipinos who were otherwise uninterested or too shy to talk about such a taboo subject. This is thanks to a flamboyant Philippine tour guide operator, Carlos Celdran. Celdran who was recently sent to jail overnight for a stunt inside a Philippine church which involved barging in on a gathering of clergymen while holding a placard with the word DAMASO written on it. It was an impassioned plea to the members of the clergy to give the RH bill its well-deserved consideration.
It was no surprise then that the clergymen were not happy with Celdran and found a reason to sue him, not because they thought that he had no right to speak his mind or not because they found his costume a bit silly (he was dressed as national hero Dr Jose Rizal); the men in robes are now suing him for disrespecting their religious beliefs. Obviously, these clerics want to teach Celdran a lesson in time travel — if he doesn’t straighten out, so the lesson goes, they are going to send him to a place where time will stop and where he can dress like a clown everyday. The Church also wants to teach everyone about logic. According to this logic, the RH Bill is totally out of the question because, well, because they said so and that it makes perfect sense to …hmmm… THEM! Ladies and Gentlemen, what we have here is a failure to communicate.
It has now come to my attention that the best way to go around and make sure the RH Bill is passed into law is to make the belief in contraception a religion in its own right. That way, no one can accuse those who choose to use contraceptives of violating anything. The only problem is, it might be too late to declare Controlling the Philippine Population as a religion in time for the deliberation of the bill in Congress, no thanks to the slowness of the system and the mindset of the majority who are still trapped in the 1950s. At 50 years old, President Noynoy Aquino (P-Noy) is at least supporting the RH bill which can potentially contribute to solving the problem of overpopulation which could, turn, solve extreme poverty in the country.
P-Noy’s support is in line with that of most people with common sense. Common sense and P-Noy in the same breath is enough to make even some atheists believe in miracles. I guess we can thank our lucky stars that P-Noy personally does not believe in having kids and, perhaps, does not have a problem having sex outside of marriage (c’mon folks, you don’t really think that he is still a 50 year old virgin, do you?). Excommunicating P-Noy should be the last thing the Catholic Church should consider, because it will only make him even more powerful the way Obi Wan Kenobi became invincible after he was struck down by Darth Vader’s light-saber. The Catholic Church should realize that threats to excommunicate someone is not exactly teaching anyone much foresight. But it does make people appreciate life more once they realise that the Church has a lot of silly rules that are now irrelevant to peoples’ ways of life.
The flaring up of the subject of contraception is very timely indeed. May 2010 marked the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill or the Pill as it is called nowadays. It was in May 1960 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the oral contraceptive. The Pill’s acceptance for use by Western society as another form of birth control was a long drawn out battle with Christian religious groups leading the charge against it. Thanks to feminist groups who fought back tooth and nail and won, the Pill eventually changed the way people live and love in the western society.
It was in the 1970s when the true impact of the Pill was evident and it was said that the changes were not particularly obvious on the sexual behavior of American women but on how they pictured their lives, their choices and their obligations. There were more women who were able to imagine a life that included both a family and a job. The desire for a large family went out of vogue as more women found they could do more things with their time.
In 1972, a bill called Title IX was enacted which ended discrimination in education and opened doors for women who wanted to pursue courses in law and medical schools. The Pill was instrumental to convincing colleges and graduate schools not to reject female applicants on the basis of assumptions that they would just wind up getting pregnant and drop out. Research conducted by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin showed connections between the point at which different states in the US allowed access to the Pill in the 70s and the progress women made in those states made.
A short history of contraceptives and religious opposition
Prior to the invention of the Pill, people were already actively searching for ways to avoid falling pregnant. Back in the olden days, they got very resourceful about it. However, the methods people used were very inconvenient, most likely uncomfortable and less effective — unlike the Pill, which was small and easily swallowed.
Even during the ancient times, historians have noted that Egyptians mixed a paste out of crocodile dung and formed it into a pessary, or vaginal insert. Whether it worked or not is a good question no one will be able to answer. It was also said that Aristotle recommended cedar oil as spermicides (a contraceptive substance that eradicates sperm). Even Casanova suggested using half a lemon as a cervical cap. One can be forgiven for giving that one a miss. The condom was named after Dr. Condom in the mid-1700s who is said to have invented a sheath made out of sheep intestines for England’s King Charles II to help limit the number of bastards he sired.
In 1952 however, a professor at Harvard Gregory Pincus collaborated with a fellow Harvard-trained physician named John Rock who accidentally formulated a birth control pill. Rock was a devout Catholic who made it his mission to help barren women have babies. When the two began to collaborate, Rock was experimenting with using hormones to help women conceive. His idea was to use the hormone progesterone to suppress ovulation for four months, then withdraw the drug and hope for a rebound effect; of course it was effective as is still today. And using the hormones to manipulate the release of the eggs also made sense to block ovulation and prevent women from getting pregnant.
In modern times, any form of contraception was met with unified opposition from across the religious spectrum — Protestants and Catholics, Western and Eastern Orthodox. That was because to these religious groups, sex, even within marriage was considered immoral unless it was aimed at having a baby. Back then information about contraception was treated as equivalent to pornography. In 1873, the US Congress passed a law banning birth control information as obscene.
The Catholic Church in the 1950s had approved of the use of the rhythm method as a valid approach to family planning. The idea was that couples would limit intercourse to the woman’s “safe” period. However, it was not foolproof because there are some women who have irregular menstrual cycles. John Rock found a way around this by arguing that all the Pill did was mimic naturally occurring hormones to extend the “safe” period so make the safe to have sex longer.
During the convention of the Second Vatican Council in 1962 under Pope John XXII, it was said that many lay leaders and clergy were already leaning towards the relaxation of the restraints on family planning as part of a general liberization of Church teaching. Unfortunately, when Pope Paul VI took over, he appointed a commission to study the issue of family planning and concluded it by issuing his encyclical Humane Vitae in which the teaching against contraception stayed in place. His decision was entirely against the commission’s suggestion that nearly all theologians and a majority of the cardinals favored changing the church’s teachings on the immorality of contraception. It seems that someone had a narrow view of the world and very arrogantly exercised his power without thinking of the consequences of his actions.
In the Philippines, half a century after the use of the Pill was legalised in the USA, the issues that are associated with any form of contraception, which the Catholic Church deem unnatural, is still controversial to say the least. Why it should be controversial is mind boggling considering that the reproductive system is after all, a woman’s issue more than a religious issue. Why would the Catholic Church or any religious organization for that matter insist on lecturing a woman on how to live her life? Could it be that the “men” who run the Church are afraid of women? It is all starting to make sense now. Women who have the option to do more than just “mind the kids” seem to threaten men who still see women as second-class citizens.
Apparently, apart from its many teachings, the Catholic Church to which I belong by the way, also wants to include lessons on hypocrisy. Reading through the proposed RH Bill will have you conclude that they have no qualms about resorting to exaggerating when they insist that the bill will eventually promote abortion. There was no mention of that word at all. It did have the word “abolition” in it. To quote a section of the bill:
2. Declaration of State Policy and Principles. The State affirms the role of women in development and ensures the substantive equality of women and men. It shall promote the empowerment of women and pursue equal access to resources and services. Further, the State realizes that equality of men and women entails the ABOLITION unequal structures and practices that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. To realize this, the State shall endeavor to develop plans, policies, programs, measures, and mechanisms to address discrimination and inequality in the economic, political, social and cultural life of women and men. Consistent with the Magna Carta of Women, the State shall accord women the rights, protection, and opportunities available to every member of society. The State shall ensure the necessary mechanisms to enforce women’s rights and adopt and undertake all legal measures necessary to foster and promote the equal opportunity for women to participate in and contribute to the development of the political, economic, social and cultural spheres. In recognizing the role and contribution of women in development, the state shall provide comprehensive, quality, and accessible reproductive health services, methods, devices, supplies and relevant information for girls and women of all ages, especially for the women and girls coming from underprivileged sectors.
I don’t know how many times I have read this from people who support the RH Bill but I need to say it again: The Church does not have a right to interfere with the affairs of the state. They do not even have a moral high ground considering that all we got from the years of abuse thousands of children received in the hands of Catholic priests is a lousy apology from Pope Benedict. He is not even going to look into changing the celibacy rules in the priesthood to perhaps reduce the occurrence of such heinous acts. They probably want to teach us a lesson in irony too because what they are preaching is not in line with how some of them act. Even author and previously devout Catholic Anne Rice had been turned off with some of the clergy’s behaviour and declared that even though she still believes in God, she is no longer a Catholic. But I digress…
Carlos Celdran is not the first person to be jailed for fighting for the use of contraception. But it is usually women who fight for women’s rights. So Celdran gets two thumbs up for fighting a cause that will greatly benefit women. American Margaret Sanger who coined the phrase birth control in 1914 was arrested for mailing her magazine Woman Rebel, an outlaw paper with its discussions of contraceptive use. Her 30 days in jail did not stop her pursuit of her cause. Her movement gained momentum during the Depression when it made sense to limit the size of families in order to survive.
Considering that the Philippines is in a permanent Depression, the RH Bill will be good for everyone in society. It won’t benefit just women. It will benefit the men and children in the women’s life. It has the potential to improve the Filipino’s quality of life because people will not be engaged in unnecessary fighting for scarce resources in order to live a decent life. The RH Bill law has to be passed and it needs to be passed now, or we will forever be imprisoned by 1950s thinking along with runaway population growth. Let us not let an outdated religious ruling control the future of the next generation. The Catholic Church does not have power when they don’t have the backing of the people.
If we don’t control the population, Nature will do it for us.