Prolonging misery: Manila's contraceptives ban

Posted at 08/16/09 12:08 AM

MANILA  - It has been described as one of the most oppressive city orders to discriminate against women. Reproductive health advocates say it violates not just the Philippine Constitution but various international conventions that the Philippines is party to -- including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the non-binding Beijing Platform for Action.

While other less affluent Philippine cities have passed their own reproductive health policies, the country's capital of Manila has effectively banned artificial contraception in public health centers and hospitals, depriving many women, especially the poor, of their main source of affordable family planning supplies.

Former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza passed Executive Order (EO) 003 in 2000 while he was still mayor. The order, while not an outright ban on artificial contraceptives, was interpreted as such -- with many government-sponsored hospitals and health centers removing condoms, birth control pills and sterilizations from their list of services.

Nine years later, the controversial EO remains in effect despite a legal challenge mounted by a group of 20 Manila residents before local courts.

Harry Roque, one of the lawyers defending the case, said the lawsuit was first rejected by the Court of Appeals late last year.

Undaunted, the petitioners elevated the case to the highest court of the land, only to see the Supreme Court drop the legal challenge on a technicality. Roque said the High Tribunal's decision was a convenient way for the court to avoid ruling on a case that could set off a firestorm of criticism from the Catholic Church.

"The Supreme Court junked the case because one of the 20 petitioners failed to sign the complaint. Basically, they just didn't want to fight with the Catholic Church," he told abs-cbnNEWS.com.

Courts deaf to RH clamor

Ironically, the court decisions have ignored public clamor for a local and national government policy on reproductive health (RH).

A Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey revealed that 88 percent of Manila residents of reproductive age agree that Manila should have a policy on reproductive health while 86 percent say that there should be a national law on reproductive health. Sixty-four percent of Manileños agree that there should be a law that requires government to distribute condoms, intra-uterine devices and pills to people who want to avail of them. On the other hand, 56 percent disagree that the use of condoms, pills and IUDs can be considered as abortion compared to 29 percent who agreed and 14 percent who were undecided.

Junice Melgar, executive director of Linangan ng mga Kababaihan (Likhaan), said the SWS survey results are an indictment of EO 003, and shows a "dissonance between the pulse of the people and the policymakers."

She said poor women in Manila interviewed by Likhaan related how the lack of information on other methods of family planning resulted in poverty, poor health of children, and even strained relationships of couples.

Melissa Upreti, senior manager and legal adviser for Asia of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, said the controversial EO is one of the most extreme examples of a ban on artificial contraceptives.

"There are clear gaps between this policy and international human rights standards. While it does not outright ban contraceptives, this is exactly what happened. What's worse is that the EO is inherently discriminatory because it deprives low-income women access to information and services that would help them become more responsible parents," she said.

Need for national RH policy

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, co-author of the proposed Reproductive Health Bill in Congress, said Manila's example should push lawmakers to back his proposal for a reproductive health (RH) policy. He pointed out that the RH bill also has a repealing clause that will render the EO 003 in Manila ineffective once the bill is signed into law.

An official of Manila's health department, however, said there have been changes since Mayor Alfredo Lim took over in 2007.

"Before, we never really lectured or talked about artificial methods. We never gave away pamphlets or posters. Now, we are able to conduct trainings in our health centers for artificial methods of contraception. While we are still not spending money on contraceptives, we are now more liberal and considerate, and all the information is being given to the people," he said.

Critics of the ordinance, however, believe the legal challenge against Manila's EO 003 is a test case for the eventual passage of the RH bill. According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a positive decision to rescind the ban "would establish constitutional protections for reproductive rights throughout the country. It could also be used to defend similar rights in neighboring countries, as well as in Catholic countries throughout the world.”

All this is not lost to Roque and the other petitioners fighting to overturn the EO. 

"This is one of the most important cases I am handling because it tackles basic human right to information and making an informed opinion. We're not giving up on this case. We'll be moving it to a lower court and starting over," he said.