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Continuing challenges to RH Law

Decidedly below the radar, drowned out by the noise and clamor of political news, is the report that the Supreme Court has temporarily stopped the Department of Health from distributing and selling implants.

The high court has issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the DOH from “procuring, selling, distributing, dispensing or administering, advertising and promoting the hormonal contraceptive ‘Implanon’ and ‘Implanon NXT’.”

The implants, thin rods inserted under the skin, release hormones that prevent pregnancy for up to three years.

The Supreme Court issued the TRO a year after ruling that the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law is constitutional. But the TRO against the implants, which were previously certified by the Food and Drug Administration, serves to further delay the full implementation of the RH Law, which to this day faces serious obstacles.

DOH officials, for instance, are finding that many women prefer the implants for use as their primary family planning method, fast catching up with the popularity of the contraceptive pill. A factor in its broad acceptance, I would think, is convenience, since a woman using the implant need not worry about an unplanned pregnancy for three years—giving her time to recover from the rigors of pregnancy and delivery while enabling her to look after a child in the most crucial first three years of life.

Junice Melgar, executive director of the community-based women’s health organization Likhaan, and quoted by Rappler, said the TRO was “totally unexpected.” She added: “A lot of people are very worried. They’re asking: Are contraceptives now illegal? Are we no longer allowed to use implants?”

The TRO was issued by the second division of the Supreme Court, acting on a complaint filed by the Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines, the same group that questioned the constitutionality of the RH Law.

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The continuing challenges to the RH Law and the DOH’s plans to roll out its full implementation merely illustrate how, despite the law’s passage through Congress and its scrutiny by the Supreme Court, women—and men—continue to face obstacles to the full enjoyment of their reproductive rights. And if women are deprived of their right to plan and manage their families, then their children are likewise deprived of their right to live healthy, productive and fulfilling lives.

Recently, I joined a group of women journalists at a dinner with representatives of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and its local partner, EnGenderRights Inc.

Payal Shah, CRR senior legal adviser for Asia, said they were in the country to follow up on the Philippine government’s response to the findings of the inquiry initiated by Cedaw (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) on the violation of women’s rights that occurred as a result of government restrictions on women’s reproductive rights.

The findings were released before the enactment of the RH Law, but Clara Rita Padilla of EnGenderRights says they continue to find examples of reproductive rights violations even with the law in place.

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By way of background, 15 years ago the city government of Manila headed by then Mayor (and now Rep.) Lito Atienza issued Executive Order No. 003 that declared Manila a “pro-life city.” The order effectively banned the distribution of modern methods of contraception with the exception of so-called natural family planning.

As a consequence, the women of Manila, a majority of whom belong to the poorest sectors, were deprived of free family planning services and supplies from city government health centers. Beyond this, in the 15 years that the EO was in effect (or tolerated), no new training was conducted on family planning service delivery among government health personnel, particularly the insertion of IUDs and the performance of tubal ligations and vasectomies which are the responsibility of trained health personnel.

In a report, the CRR said that as a consequence of the EO, “women and girls in Manila … experienced serious risks to their health and lives due to unwanted and unplanned pregnancies and unsafe abortions.”

The request for a special inquiry was filed with Cedaw in 2008, and in 2012 a Cedaw team visited the country, “the first such inquiry conducted by the Cedaw committee in Asia and on contraceptive access.”

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Last April, the Cedaw committee released “a groundbreaking report” finding the Philippine government (the national government and not just Manila) “responsible for grave and systematic reproductive rights violations as a result of EO 003 and other restrictive measures.”

The wonder is that not only was the Cedaw report ignored by local officials, but also that very few Filipinos seemed to be disturbed by the findings.

During their current visit, the women from CRR and EnGenderRights, in a meeting with Manila officials, at least managed to wangle an “apology” from the acting city health officer. Dr. Benjamin Yson recognized the wrong done to the women of Manila in the last 15 years, but said he “sees no need” to revoke prior local policies that restricted access to modern contraceptives.” It’s worth noting that despite the passage of the RH Law, other local government units (Sorsogon City is an example) have implemented their own ordinances limiting access and information on family planning.

The passage of the RH Law has been touted as a “victory” for Filipino women and their reproductive rights. But the TRO on implants and the continuing stigmatization of family planning by local governments make us wonder if the law has not instead become a pyrrhic victory.

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