Friday, September 19, 2008

The Reproductive Health (RH) bill

While the Senate is mired in a "double insertion scandal" (which to me sounds more like a title for a really bad porno movie), the House of Representatives is preoccupied with the passage of the controversial Reproductive Health bill. For more than a decade, population management proponents have been trying to enact an RH law but they could not even reach "first base." All the previous Congesses refused to hear it even on the Committee level. But this 14th Congress is different - not only has it approved the RH bill on the committee level, it is now debating it on the plenary hall. What is even more fascinating is that the RH bill has a very good chance of passing the House of Representatives (although I doubt very much if the Senate will enact their own version considering that we're nearing the election year). Still, even if the RH bill loses in the subsequent voting, the fact alone that it reached the plenary debate level is already a significant victory for the family planning advocates. The bill has broken the so-called "glass ceiling" and this development will hopefully pave the way for its easy passage in the next Congress.

I am very interested to know how the House will vote on this issue. Even now, it seems apparent that the fight will not be along party lines (or the traditional "majority/minority" lines) but along "generational" lines. Congressman Edcel Lagman and Janette Garin, the main proponents, are confident of the bill's passage and are claiming that they already have the 94 signatures required for its approval on the floor.
I note that most of those who signed in favour of the RH bill are the younger members (that is, those born in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the so-called Generation Me) while those opposed are the "senior citizens" in the House of Representatives, legislative stalwarts like Congresswoman Annie Susano, Deputy Speakers Raul del Mar and Pablo Garcia, and Congresswoman Ebbie Apostol (the one who withdrew her signature at the last minute) who I think were all born before the Second World War.

To put things in perspective, the generation of Congressman Pablo Garcia (who is 80-plus years old) grew up in a world much different from that of Garin, a thirty-something congresswoman. The Philippines was a much different place when they were coming of age before or during the war. Old folks have always thought of our generation as “spoiled” or “very lucky” – we have not experienced the degradations of war, we enjoy better health care and have many modern conveniences unavailable during their youth - and in many ways, I tend to agree that there is no better time to be alive than right now. “You never had it better, I had to walk to school 30 kilometers barefoot” is a common plaint of the older generation towards our generation.

But where I stand, it seems that things are really harder now than before. We are in a world wherein college admissions are increasingly difficult and very competitive, good-paying jobs are hard to find and even harder to keep (what with all the company downsizing and restructuring), and the prices of basic necessities like food, housing, health care and fuel have skyrocketed. Our generation has been “trained” to expect more out of life at a time when good jobs and nice houses are increasingly difficult to obtain. During Congressman Garcia’s time, it was possible to support a family on just one white-collar income. “Many young people comment that their parents were able to buy a house when they were much younger, and on much less income. The rule of thumb used to be that your house should not cost more than two times your annual income, and that you should spend about 25% of your income on housing. What a joke. Mortgage lenders now regularly increase this percentage to 40% and in a lot of markets people do everything they can to exceed this figure: borrowing down-payments, taking out interest-only loans, using adjustable-rate mortgages. That’s usually not so they can afford mansions, but just to buy into the market while they still can” (Source: “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge, Ph.D. page 122-124).

Today, you need a college degree just to earn what a blue-collar worker in this country used to earn 30 or 40 years ago. Both my grandmothers on my father and mother’s side stopped working when they got married – it was not only accepted but it was expected. My grandmothers did not pursue a career, they stayed at home to raise their brood, and they were comfortable living on just their husband’s incomes. Today, single-income families are very rare because both parents have to earn an income in order to maintain a semblance of the middle-class lifestyle. The main reason why women work today is not “personal fulfilment” but economic considerations.

It took humanity 10,000 generations (or 200,000 years) to reach a world population of 2 billion people. Now, in the course of one human lifetime (70 years), the world population will increase from 2 billion to more than 9 billion. This steep and speedy rise in the number of people, not the population growth rate per se, is the root cause of the over-all lowering in our quality of life. We have to step on the brakes, or else the world will overheat. And the Catholic Church is not blind to this fact. Listening to the arguments of our Catholic bishops, I get the impression that they oppose the RH bill not because it seeks to curb population growth but mainly out of fear that condoms, pills and IUDs will promote promiscuity among our people, especially our youth. I don't know about that but the fact is, our people's sexual behaviour have shifted in time. For example, a study showed that during the 1960s, the average woman lost her virginity at age 18; by the late 1990s, the average age was 15. In other words, our parents started having sex in college while kids today do it in high school. Oral sex is now sometimes called the "the new third base" and casual "one-night-stand" encounters, which used to be viewed as very "un-Filipina," is also quite common nowadays. It used to be that sex was something you did with your wife/husband, then it became something you did with the person you love; now people have sex primarily for "recreation" purposes, much like jogging or golf.

I believe the RH bill will not exacerbate sexual promiscuity among our population simply because we are already promiscuous in the first place. And this behavioral trend, this “loosening of public morals” as Churchmen put it, is influenced more by TV and the movies than anything else. The fact is, no amount of effort will stop our people from having sex and what the RH bill hopes to do is to give Filipinos information to enable them to prevent having unwanted children. I now forget who said it but there is a saying “There are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.” The RH bill will teach our citizens to be more responsible and plan their family sizes according only to what they can afford. As the book Freakonomics shows, "much of the crime drop in the U.S. in the 1990s can be traced to a surprising source: the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973. After this time, millions of unwanted children were simply not born. Those children – all of them unwelcome, and many of them poor – might have been the most likely to drop out of school, get into fights, commit crimes and drink alcohol. The teen girls among them might have been the most likely to get pregnant. But they didn’t, because they didn’t exist." While I am against abortion and draw the line against legalizing it, I also firmly believe that government and the Church have a moral responsibility to educate our people towards the hazards of unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancies.

It is unfortunate that the local Catholic Church has chosen to focus the population policy debate solely on pills, IUDs, condoms and other “abortificient gadgets” when there are other ways that they can work together to help government curb our population growth rate. In the grand scheme of things, artificial contraceptives is only a small part of population management and flooding our country with condoms and pills will not really lead to decreased population rates. Education is still the best contraceptive – in many countries, increased literacy rates have led to a reduction in pregnancies. In Kerala province in India, the population growth rate there stabilized to ZERO when provincial leaders embarked on a massive health and education campaign. It is a fact that better-educated women generally bear fewer children. In Singapore for example, a college-educated woman had an average of 1.6 children, a high school graduate also 1.6, an elementary-educated 2.3 and the unschooled woman 4.4 children. Lee Kuan Yew tried to offer tax incentives and income rebates to women on their 3rd and 4th child, but his “lucrative offer” got mixed results. The Catholic Church in the Philippines is one of the leading advocates of education, and private schools ran by religious orders are among the best in the country. Therefore, the Church could be an invaluable ally of the government in raising the literacy rate of our people. This is something that the two opposing sides can agree and work on.

Another effective population management tool is the improvement of our infant mortality rates. As the African leader Julius Nyerere said, “The most powerful contraceptive is the confidence by parents that their children will survive.” If Filipinos believe that there is a good possibility that their offspring will die young, this is a strong incentive for them to have many children to ensure that at least some survive into adulthood to carry the family name. Lowering the infant mortality rate can be achieved through better child care, healthier nutrition and improved health systems, and this is something that the Church I believe is not opposed to. The lowering of infant mortality rate is another component where the Church and government can work together on.

The House of Representatives will again tackle the bill next week and we can expect another round of explosive and exciting debates on population policy. Bringing the issue out to the public is a victory in itself for both the pro and anti RH proponents and in this ''marketplace of ideas, I believe that it is the people who will decide whom to believe in the end.


David B Katague said...

I agree 100% that education is the best contraceptive.

Anonymous said...

knowledge may or may not influence attitude towards reproduction. like you said, the population explosion happened just recently at around the same time when access to education was also increasing; you can give credit to education as much as you want but I can bet that distributing birth control pills will have a MUCH BETTER outcome