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Church is biggest hindrance to RH bill — women's group

In the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation, the Church is the biggest hindrance to the passage of the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, a women's advocate group said. The RH bill, which proposes to “guarantee to universal access to medically-safe, legal, affordable and quality reproductive health care services," is one of the most contentious issues in the country. The bill has been filed in previous congresses but was never passed into law. The main proponent of the present bill, RH bill 96, is Rep. Edcel Lagman. At the Women Deliver Philippines conference on Thursday, University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law professor Atty. Beth Pangalangan said proponents of the RH bill should ignore the church's stand on the issue. Women Deliver, a three-day conference that began on September 15, seeks to promote the prevention of maternal and newborn deaths and disabilities. Pangalangan said, "I think the problem is that legislators allow themselves to be swayed by the church. They forget that they were elected into office by Filipino people for them to pass laws that will be good for everyone." "We have very weak legislators who think they cannot survive politically if it were not for the church's support," she said. "What happens is our legislators yield whenever they are threatened by the church. I've said once that it's not really a problem of a powerful church but a problem of a weak state." Pangalangan added that the problem is not the Catholic church per se but the Roman Catholic hierarchy. "I don't really see much hope in dealing with the hierarchy because that goes all the way to the Pope. For as long as he says something, that's not subject to debate," she said. Catholic church's stand on family planning Ben De Leon, president of the Philippine Center for Population and Development, which organized the Women Deliver conference, said the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) was invited to join the conference but refused to attend. He said the CBCP was also a member of the Commission on Population when it was established in 1971 but eventually withdrew its membership because it did not want to promote all methods of contraception. The Catholic Church only promotes natural family planning methods and is against the use of artificial forms of contraception like condoms and contraceptive pills. The CBCP has been vocal against the RH Bill because it promotes artificial means of family planning, which they believe are abortifacient or can induce abortion. According to the Natural Family Planning International, Inc. (NFPI) website, "NFP is a way of following God’s plan for achieving and/or avoiding pregnancy." "It consists of ways to achieve or to avoid pregnancy using the physical means that God has built into human nature," the NFPI added. NFP has two distinct forms: * Ecological breastfeeding (a form of child care that normally spaces babies about two years apart on the average), and * Systematic NFP (a system that uses a woman’s signs of fertility to determine the fertile and infertile times of her cycle). A married couple who wants to avoid pregnancy is encouraged to practice chaste abstinence during the fertile time of the woman's cycle. State of denial? De Leon said, "I don't understand why the Catholic church has not really been so cooperative with us. [They] are in a state of denial of all the realities." He alleged that some members of the CBCP have expressed their support in the RH Bill but not publicly. "There are young bishops and priests who would support our advocacy but they cannot state it publicly," he said. "They encourage us to push the RH Bill because they know that the bill is very useful especially to the poorest of the poor." He also alleged that a priest who supported their advocacy told him, "150 bishops vs 92 million Filipinos - Who do you listen to?" Lagman wants RH Bill to be passed in 15th Congress House Minority Leader Edcel Lagman, who filed the RH Bill on the first day of the 15th Congress, hopes that the bill will be passed into law once and for all. The RH Bill filed from the 11th to the 13th Congress died in the First Committee. In the 14th Congress, the bill reached the Second Committee and the Second Reading but eventually died after that. Achieving development goals The Women Deliver Conference also tackled Millennium Development Goal (MDG) No. 5, which aims to reduce the maternal mortality ratio and to provide universal access to reproductive health by 2015. The MDGs are eight international development goals that all 192 United Nations member states, and at least 23 international organizations, have agreed to achieve by the year 2015. These goals include: (1) Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; (2) Achieving universal primary education; (3) Promoting gender equality and empowering women; (4) Reducing child mortality rate; (5) Improving maternal health; (6) Combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; (7) Ensuring environmental sustainability, and (8) Developing a global partnership for development. The government's MDG progress report shows that the Philippines' target to reduce maternal deaths is least likely to be achieved by the 2015 deadline. Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Dr. Enrique Ona is confident that the goal can be attained in the next five years. "I strongly believe we'll be able to achieve that. It's a good five years to do the things we'd like to pursue," he said. "We are going to put more attention to our health facilities, from the district down to the rural health units, so that we'll be able to address this issue," Ona said. The health chief admitted that maternal emergency care is one of the most neglected components of the maternal and newborn health program. This leads to the death of up to 11 mothers daily. "The DOH is committed to put in place a health system responsive to the needs of our mothers, newborns and children," he said. In 2009, close to 400 health facilities have been upgraded." He also stressed the Aquino administration's support for reproductive health. "Ensuring universal access to reproductive health is a pillar of the universal health care agenda of the Aquino government," he said. "We will continue to strive to make life-saving health services available and accessible for our women and children as soon as possible." –VVP, GMANews.TV