Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. She is a doctor of Medicine and a doctor of Philosophy in Psychology. She is fanatical about UP where she teaches. She also works with Likhaan, a sexual and reproductive health and rights group. Those who remember her occasional columns in Yellow Pad might be interested to know that she is still a mother hen to her children and is still only partially successful at keeping them from escaping from under her wing. This article was published in two parts in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld. Part 1 was published in the February 4,2008 edition, page S1/5 while Part 2 was published in the February 11,2008 edition, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

On January 21, 2008, 20 directly affected women filed a case in the Court of Appeals to invalidate Executive Order No. 003, a policy banning “artificial contraceptives” in all of Manila’s public health facilities, engineered in February 2000 by then-mayor Jose “Lito” Atienza, Jr.

The case is the culmination of several years of work by women’s rights advocates against the order. The most recent and major effort that led up to the filing of the petition was research done by a non-governmental organization, Likhaan, the University of the Philippines’ ReproCen and the Center for Reproductive Policy based in New York, documenting the effects of the policy on poor women in Manila.

For economists, law and health professionals, academics, activists and the general public, the case against former Mayor Atienza’s policy should prove fascinating. The policy affects the lives of real people at the most intimate level and in a profound way. It is about the violation of human rights. The case has implications in terms of international law, the Philippine Constitution and the relationship between local government units and the national government. The Manila policy  (and similar policies by the President and other executives) callously set aside internationally recognized and scientific standards for health care. The case also speaks of how religion is used for political purposes and the power that one group within one religion exercises over government. All of us, regardless of belief or non-belief, are challenged by the case to assess our ethical/spiritual approaches to dissent and difference in Philippine society.

The case can also be seen as the climax of a mystery story. Upon the promulgation of the Executive Order, women’s health advocates sensed a change in the delivery of contraceptive services in the City of Manila and the attitudes of health personnel towards women seeking services. Those changes would eventually take a more dramatic form. Health clinics under the Mayor would stop giving modern contraceptives completely. Private organizations providing services would be harassed with closure orders or by unidentified men whom they would eventually associate with the barangay. Some private clinics did close to avoid the harassment. The study entitled “Imposing Misery: The Impact of Manila’s Contraception Ban on Women and Families,” published in 2007, documents all these events.

The researchers discovered even more horrors as they were undertaking the research. A check with Manila drugstores revealed that they too would not sell contraceptives. In many instances, the refusal to provide services and information on family planning would be justified with, “may bago nang policy, pro-life si Mayor (there is a new policy, the Mayor is pro-life).”

It would take years of repeated requests for dialogue and information before those who opposed the policy could actually get a copy of the executive order. That victory came about because one feminist lawyer had to play dumb and clueless to equally clueless people in the Manila City Hall, who eventually gave her a copy. The most important story that needs to be told is that of the poor women of Manila. These are the stories of the 20 petitioners who filed the case. The petitioners and their families represent the interests of many Manila residents adversely affected by this policy.

The research report quotes Tina Montiel, age 36, who wanted to have only two children.  She had been getting contraceptive supplies from the Manila health system before the policy. After her fourth pregnancy she wanted to have a tubal ligation but could not get it. She now has eight children.

“Our daily income is 150 pesos from scavenging. My family’s breakfast includes three sachets of coffee and a few pieces of pandesal [bread rolls]. One kilo of rice is insufficient for lunch and dinner. We make do with soy sauce or salt if we can’t afford to buy ten pesos’ cooked vegetable for lunch or dried fish for dinner. If our daily earnings only amount to below 70 pesos, we only have bread for dinner.

“My children are malnourished. Oftentimes, they miss a meal. My sixth child, who was underweight at birth, hasn’t recovered yet. I give each of my children five pesos for school allowance. I feel sorry for them because I can’t buy them school shoes.

They miss lunch if they have to pay something in school. One of my children had to stop going to school.

“My eldest son died of rheumatic heart disease. Most of our earnings went to his medication. My husband lost his job as security guard, after he was unable to pay more than 3,000 pesos needed to renew his license.

If the mayor is concerned about poor women like me, he should bring family planning supplies and services back to Manila so women don’t have unwanted pregnancies.”

Tina’s story is but one of several documented in the report. The opposition to contraception is not just anti-women, it is anti-poor. A day after the case was filed, economic scholars tackled the issue of poverty in one of a series of cutting-edge University of the Philippines (UP) Centennial Lectures. The convener of the panel and former Dean of the UP School of Economics Raul Fabella noted the need for family planning services and reform in systems of governance necessary to achieve the kind of social services that will lift our people out of poverty.

Within the context of this discrimination against them, the high point of the narrative lies in the women petitioners’ nobility. Most of the petitioners cannot regain what they have lost. When asked, many of them say they are doing it for the sake of all women who still need and seek the means to decide over the size of their families. They remain fearful of reprisals even if a new mayor now sits in City Hall. Politicians of Atienza’s mold strike fear into the hearts of those who disagree with them. That fear, no matter what his allies say, is not one that comes from Atienza’s moral rectitude or his closeness to an avenging god.

The story of Atienza and the enforced-birth movement (I refuse to call them pro-life) is not about the moral striving that is at the heart of all religions. Instead it is a story of the arrogance of people who mistake their insights as absolute truth because they cannot accept the essential frailty of human reasoning. It is about the tyranny of a few who see no sin in sacrificing the rest of us for the sake of their “perfect” universe. It is about an aberration in moral development that results in individuals who are frightened by difference and diversity. This is less about religion but more about a political agenda seeking to control women’s bodies and their sexuality. The impulse here is fascist, and therefore a form of spiritual corruption.

Those of us who have a connection to the UP and are feeling a rise in school spirit because it is our centennial year, have something to crow about. The petitioners are represented by some of the leading lights of the UP College of Law. These lawyers hold true to the secular character that was foundational to the University when it started in 1908.

There is a common stream that runs through secular discourse and the profound spirituality that has led to religious dissidence through the centuries. It should be pointed out to the enforced-birth advocates that Christ himself was a dissident from his own religious tradition. Turning to our own history, we must remember that blind and subservient piety was a prominent feature of the Catholic Church’s shameful colonial past. It was the main target of Dr. Jose Rizal’s scathing social critiques as he fought for a nation he wished to see liberated from poverty, ignorance and misery. The Philippine Revolution of 1896 was anti-clerical because it was fighting for both freedom and democracy.

The early Christians had a saying, “Iglesia semper reformandum (the Church is always in need of reform).” Surveys show that the majority of Catholics disagree with the teachings of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church on contraceptives. Many of the good people in the Catholic Church are deeply bothered by the inhumanity that results from the Church’s politics.

The case filed against the Manila policy is an act that calls these dissenting Catholics to solidarity with the poor women of Manila. In turn, these brave women have acted in solidarity with all those who see the need to reform the Church.