INQUIRER.NET

Are SC justices scientists?

I met recently with Health Secretary Janette Garin, who was looking remarkably relaxed and laid-back despite the heavy load of her position and the impending end of her stint in the Cabinet.

Amid information-sharing (read: chismis) on her possible successor, Garin aired a plea that she hoped would reach the Supreme Court. This has to do with the existing TRO (temporary restraining order) that is about to turn a year old prohibiting the Department of Health, and by extension any public health facility, from offering to the public (read: women) contraceptive implants. Even more important, the high court’s TRO also prohibits the Food and Drug Administration, which had approved the implants, from issuing licenses for the distribution and marketing of any form of contraception and from renewing the licenses of contraceptives available on the market.

“This means,” said Garin who, as a congresswoman, actively worked for the passage of the reproductive health bill, “that Filipino women will soon run out of contraceptive options save for abstinence and natural family planning.” While private practitioners are not covered by the high court’s ban on implants, even they will soon run out of family planning supplies if all forms of contraceptives lose their licenses. Already, added Garin, fewer and fewer drug companies are offering contraceptives like pills, injectables and condoms. “And the few that remain will feel free to jack up their prices because of the absence of competition.”

And where would this leave Filipino women of reproductive age who wish to postpone or space their childbearing?

The TRO on contraceptives clearly undercuts the intent and meaning of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law, which ran the gauntlet of legislative procedures for over a decade until its signing into law in 2012. Now the Supreme Court, by sitting on the law’s full implementation, not only has thwarted the people’s will expressed by the legislators for whom they had voted, but has also put women’s and babies’ health at risk. Given the high maternal mortality and child mortality rates in the country, this is nothing less than arrogant and criminal.

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Women and RH advocates can take some comfort in knowing that presumptive President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is a staunch supporter of reproductive health.

This is based not just on recent public statements he has made, in the course of which he also launched an attack on the Catholic Church, but also on his history as mayor of Davao City. As mayor, Duterte encouraged his constituents to limit the size of their families, though he has since amended his position to say he favors a couple having “only” three children. Indeed, after promising at a rally that the city government would provide free family planning supplies to anyone who wanted them, Duterte had to retract his promise after some days when city health centers were inundated by women and couples clamoring for supplies and services.

Let’s hope that, apart from his own braggadocio and macho posturing, especially on the issue of rape, which has earned him a reprimand from the Commission on Human Rights, Duterte will keep to his pro-RH position in defiance of conservative elements of the Church. Maybe then he can also modify his views and behavior (and his language) toward women.

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Why did the prolife groups which sought the TRO from the Supreme Court focus their attention on the implants?

This is because, once they were introduced into the market after FDA approval, the implants proved to be highly popular in the market. In fact, reports indicate, the number of “acceptors” of the implants, which are tiny rods inserted under the skin in the arms of users, was fast catching up with the number of users of injectables and even of the very popular pills.

Part of the reason for this was that the implants, which release a steady dose of contraceptive hormones, are good for up to three years. Compare this with the injectables, which provide protection against pregnancy for up to three months, or the pill, which a woman has to take daily.

Working in the implants’ favor, I must say, is that they not only provide “worry-free” protection for a woman for three years (which in the opinion of many experts is the “ideal” gap between pregnancies); also, a woman need only pay just a single visit to the health center for such lengthy protection. The closest rivals for “years of couple protection” are IUDs, which prevent pregnancies for up to 10 years, and of course such permanent methods as tubal ligation and vasectomy.

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The petitioners who successfully sued for a TRO on the implants cited the alleged risks associated with the method.

But the implants have been in use in many other countries—some of them in poor developing countries—for many years, with no widespread reports of the alleged dangers to the health of women or their babies.

Indeed, the implants and all other forms of contraception in use today, were tested and reviewed by the FDA before they were granted a license. This is a function precisely reserved for the FDA, which is presumed to have the necessary expertise and authority to determine the safety and efficacy of drugs whose makers and marketers are seeking government permission. In effect, with the TRO on the implants and other contraceptives, the Supreme Court, which is made up of lawyers, has effectively taken over the functions and authority of the FDA, and of the DOH, which has supervision over it. Are the justices claiming that they have more scientific and medical knowledge than the authorities, scientists and doctors of the FDA and DOH?

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