Mapagpalayang karapatan: Why decriminalize abortion?

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Siya ang halimaw ng storya,” Alexandra Trese viciously says in the third episode of the eponymous Netflix series. She points her finger at Nova Aurora, the blood-spattered movie star who moments ago had just been revealed to have left her own newborn to die. The fetus, who came back as a tiyanak to take revenge, was mercilessly killed by Aurora for the second time. Portrayed as callous, selfish, and narcissistic, Aurora meets her demise by the end of the episode as a horde of the creatures devoured her.

(She is the monster of the story.)

In a series that explores the darkness within humanity, it is no accident that the tiyanak was the possessed spirit of her child. After all, the urban legend of the tiyanak eventually evolved into a cautionary tale for women who choose to abort their babies.

This legend is mired in shame and guilt, reinforced by oppressive societal structures. Abortion has always been a dirty word, talked about in hushed whispers and relegated to makeshift stalls in Quiapo and grimy back alley clinics where women settle for pills and other unsanitary methods.

Yet, the reality is 7.3 million women undergo an abortion every year for several reasons such as rape, financial difficulties, pregnancy complications, among others. But despite the widespread necessity for abortion, the Philippines still lacks the initiative to address this concern. Moreover, amid a pandemic that worsened economic and medical risks, more women are deprived of their bodily autonomy.

In chains

Multiple conditions preserve the stigma around abortion. For starters, the Revised Penal Code of the Philippines sentences women who undergo an abortion to imprisonment. But this law is historically outdated and traces its origins to the 1822 Spanish Penal Code. While Spain has long since decriminalized abortion, it remains a grave crime in the Philippines.

Krinikriminalisa ang mga babae, healthcare providers, at mga tumutulong sa babae kapag nalaman nilang nag-undergo ng abortion ang babae,” expresses Sarryna Gesite, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) networking officer representing the Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network (PINSAN). As a result, women have to resort to illegal and unsafe abortion methods.

(Women, healthcare providers, and those that help the woman are criminalized if they find out that the woman underwent abortion.)

The country’s lack of reproductive health services also deprives women of their fundamental right to healthcare. Thus, they are unable to normalize openly talking about issues caused by insufficient methods that cater to their physical and sexual wellness. Reproductive health essentials such as birth control pills, condoms, intrauterine devices, and family planning services remain inaccessible to most of the population.

Danica Magtubo, WGNRR and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) youth officer, elaborates by sharing one of her experiences in a research project that utilized mental health hotlines for those with sexual and reproductive health concerns. “Nangyari na ‘yung abortion, dinudugo pa rin siya after,” she continues. “Hindi naman puwedeng tabuyin mo sila na ‘Ay, bakit ginawa mo ‘yan na illegal ‘yan?’”

(She already underwent the abortion, [and] she was still bleeding after. You can’t shoo them away, saying, ‘Why did you do that when it’s illegal?’)

Magtubo believes that decriminalizing abortion paves the way for better reproductive health and economic opportunities for Filipino women. A 2019 study on 162 countries found that making abortion safe, legal, and accessible reduced maternal deaths. Echoing the same sentiment, Gesite emphasizes that abortion is a public health issue. She adds, “When done safely by a skilled health provider, and in a safe and sanitized environment, it will not cause any complications [for] the person undergoing this procedure.”

A culture of shame

What also intensifies the stigma around abortion are the institutions that perpetuate anti-abortion and anti-choice narratives. With the Philippines being a predominantly Catholic country, the Church has been a staunch opponent of pro-choice legislation. The landmark Reproductive Health Act of 2012 that stipulated universal and free access to contraceptives and reproductive health services for all Filipinos has been hampered by several petitions by pro-life Catholic groups.

Atty. Clara Rita Padilla, reproductive rights attorney and executive director of EnGendeRight, believes the Church often preaches harmful and archaic beliefs. “It is an institution that discriminates against women and people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression,” she asserts.

A big argument of pro-life groups is that life begins at conception; hence some contraceptives are effectively abortifacients too. However, Gesite clarifies, “‘Yung fertilized egg na prine-prevent to become an embryo in the womb of a person, hindi pa siya maituturing na may buhay.

(But [through abortion,] the fertilized egg prevented to become an embryo in the womb of a person still cannot be regarded as a living human being.)

And regardless, women are not merely incubators—their reproductive abilities and organs do not define their worth. “‘Yung personhood ay hindi maidudugtong doon sa kung ano ‘yung nasa sinapupunan,” Gesite explains.

(Personhood cannot be connected to what is inside the womb.)

For the privileged

But Padilla also raises that “it’s not really the religious morals that prevent people from using contraceptives—it’s

actually lack of information.” Hence, quality and comprehensive sex education, in particular, is crucial to eradicating misconceptions. Magtubo praises sex education in schools abroad, saying, “mas natuturuaan ‘yung mga kabataan na magkaroon ng choice over their body.” 

(The youth are taught more to have a choice over their bodies.)

Aside from being a health matter, abortion also tackles the issue of class. Social status often determines the choices a woman can have. “A lot of poor women are unable to access safe abortions for the mere fact that they might not have funds to pay for their own contraceptives,” Padilla conveys. “They are not able to leave abusive relationships because they can’t even pay for their own transportation and food. So, how else can they even pay for safe abortion services?”

This is why Padilla spearheaded the bill titled, An Act Decriminalizing Induced Abortion to Save the Lives of Women, Girls, and Persons of Diverse Gender Identities, which aims to decriminalize abortion and institutionalize safe abortion services. “It can save women’s lives,” she explains. “Whatever reason they may have, whether a therapeutic, [or] financial reason, [and] whether as a result of rape…[abortion is] a life and death issue.”

Path to freedom

Despite the hope of progressive legislation like this, however, patriarchy and sexism are still deeply ingrained in Philippine society. Gesite recounts her conversations with women who have had abortions, and shares that they feel relief after the procedure. Most of them already have multiple children and are not financially capable of more. However, these women are going against a strong tide. “Although may sense of relief, hindi niya kaya fully i-embrace ‘yung freedom nayun kasi nakakulong pa rin siya doon sa notion ng mga nakapaligid sa kanya at nakakalungkot ‘yun,” she tells.

(Although there is a sense of relief, she cannot fully embrace that freedom because she is still imprisoned by the notion of the people around her, and that is saddening.)

Padilla agrees, saying, “In practice, you would still see that we need changes in practices, removal of stigma, that would come alongside the passage of the law.”

Although genuine change in women’s lives is a long and arduous path, Padilla remains resolute that we will be moving forward. She adds, “It helps empower women, girls, and persons with diverse gender identities, in being able to decide on their own for their own bodies, and people are able to respect their decision-making.”

Jamie Sanchez

By Jamie Sanchez

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