The option for safe abortion is a woman’s right

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It’s clear that unintended pregnancy is common in the Philippines, and despite restrictive legislations, so is abortion. Given the failure of our current laws and the long-overdue need for safe abortion, where can Filipino women turn? Illustration by KRISTIENNE AMANTE

Warning: This article contains material that may be sensitive.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — As Women’s Month comes to a close, it’s worth noting that this year, the Philippines has maintained its rank as the most gender-inclusive nation in Asia and the top 16th worldwide according to a report of 153 countries by the World Economic Forum. The Philippines has closed its gaps in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, and health. Political empowerment is the only gap that has widened over the past couple of years.

However, these statistics fail to tell a nuanced story of women at the margins. Many Filipino women remain to be victims of violence, discrimination, and exploitation.

There are glaring gaps in pro-women legislation, one of the most crucial being that of safe abortion. The Philippines has among the most restrictive laws against abortion in the world, and access to the safest options remains a labyrinthine process at best.

Archaic laws fail our women

Abortion is criminalized under our Revised Penal Code of 1930, which penalizes women and those who assist them with imprisonment. Provisions on abortion were lifted from Spanish Penal Code dating back to 1870, according to a policy brief by Atty. Clara Rita Padilla, Executive Director of advocacy organization EnGendeRights. Looking at the code, language alone betrays its outdated state: Article 258 imposes a higher prison term on the woman or her parents if the abortion is done “for the purpose of concealing her dishonor.” The section on abortion is just above Section Three, which is about penalizing duels — arranged combat with matched weapons and set rules declining in popularity by the 19th century.

Taking a closer look at our laws, “therapeutic abortion” may be interpreted as legal; this is abortion performed to save a woman’s life and other justifiable grounds such as rape and incest. The Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs lists the Philippines' abortion policy as “legal to save a woman's life.”

Our 1987 Constitution states equal protection for the life of the mother and the unborn child, but was also clear about women's rights to health, equality, and role towards nation-building. There was no other mention of the unborn's rights, thus Padilla argues in her policy paper that prenatal protection does not undermine women’s rights. Furthermore, looking at the principles of necessity of Article 11 of the Penal Code, circumstances may be justified as necessary to save a woman's life.

The interpretation of these policies is ambiguous at best, and in reality, many Filipino women are denied quality abortion and post-abortion care out of moral judgments or fear of penalization.

Tirelessly working around the gaps

The Philippines has a number of women’s rights advocacy groups. One of these is the southern-based Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR), with its Philippine office helmed by Executive Director Marevic Parcon.

“Kahapon lang, meron kaming tatlong requests by email. One of them said, 'Currently looking for surgical abortion, I hope you could help me,'” Parcon shares about the nature of their work, which involves advocating for the decriminalization of abortion and leading women to reputable information sources. She mentions that in times of national calamity, their work only increases: “With each and every disaster, we see a higher incidence of gender-based violence, higher incidence of unwanted pregnancy, and thus, more and more attempts at unsafe abortion.”

Despite the constant efforts of women’s rights advocates, there is only so much that can be done if systemic changes in pro-women’s legislation move at a snail’s pace. One of the institutions that Parcon endorses is the World Health Organization, which has verifiable and scientific information. “WGNRR is advocating for decriminalization of abortion. We give them websites that they can go to, but for access, tali rin ang mga kamay namin.”

The reality of Filipino women looking for safe abortion

According to Parcon, there is no one profile to summarize those seeking help from WGNRR: “Some of them are students na nagkaroon ng acquaintance, for example, nagkaroon ng inuman tapos nagkaroon ng sexual violence. Ang iba ay kabataan sa urban poor setting.”

What is common among them all, shares Parcon, is the palpable desperation and mental anguish in their tone. She explains, “You can tell sa boses nila, most of them are in a desperate situation, and some of them are already admittedly suicidal. You can actually tell that some of these are entrapment. Meron na ngang mga request for tulungan man lang silang makabili online. We don't know where the women will go after.”

A national study by Singh and colleagues estimates that six in 10 Filipino women have experienced an unintended pregnancy at some point in their lives. About 1.43 million pregnancies each year, nearly half of all pregnancies in the Philippines, are unintended.

The same study has surveyed the top reasons why Filipino women undergo abortion: 75% of women cited a lack of funds required for raising an additional child; 57% said that they had enough children or their pregnancy came too soon after their last birth; 46% said that they were too young (specifically younger than 25); nearly one-third of the women cited health risks; 13% of the women were survivors of rape. In truth, it is difficult to pin down accurate statistics on violence against women due to the immense stigma and added danger placed upon those who do come forward to report.

Abortion for more than just physical health

Physical health is one of the major reasons women terminate their pregnancy, especially for women-at-risk (e.g. less than 18 years old, less than 4’ 9” in height, with preexisting medical conditions). The aforementioned study by Singh reports that eight in 10 women who succeed in ending their pregnancy have health complications, with more than half of them having severe complications. Women from impoverished and rural areas are the ones most at risk: they lack access to safer methods and service providers, thus experiencing higher rates of severe complications.

However, Parcon highlights a less-often talked about aspect of a woman’s health that deteriorates significantly due to lack of access to safe abortion in the Philippines: “There is an immense mental anguish that a woman has to go through, and it’s not even because of the abortion itself. It’s because of, first of all, the inaccessibility of safe services, and second, the stigma and how people will look at her.”

“They feel that they are alone. Feeling nila, ‘bahala na,’ kahit nakakatakot yung mga unsafe practices na gagawin nila. ‘Yung iba, nagpapatadyak sa balakang, tumalalon, nagpapamasahe sa tiyan, nagpapa-catheter na lang,” explains Parcon. There is a feeling of hopelessness among those who consult with WGNRR, and a frustration from members of the organization with their hands tied by the law.

Current options afforded to Filipino women

It’s clear that unintended pregnancy is common in the Philippines, and despite restrictive legislations, so is abortion. Given the failure of our current laws and the long-overdue need for safe abortion, where can Filipino women turn? What other policies and protections are afforded to them?

Survivors of sexual violence and those who cannot afford to have a child are entitled to safe abortions and humane, nonjudgmental, compassionate care afterwards.

Section 3 of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10354) has implications for post-abortive care: “women needing care for post-abortive complications and all other complications arising from pregnancy, labor and delivery and related issues shall be treated and counseled in a humane, nonjudgmental and compassionate manner in accordance with law and medical ethics.”

There was a proposed National Policy on the Prevention and Management of Abortion Complications by the Department of Health, but further developments seem to have halted on this front. While these ideals and standards for post-abortive care are at a standstill, Parcon mentions that there are still hospitals capacitated by DOH for post-abortive interventions.

As for victims of sexual violence, “Madami nang nagconsult sa amin na [survivors.] We refer them to psychosocial counseling, and then report the cases to the Women’s and Children’s Protection Desk concerned,” explains Parcon.

The legalization of abortion has been a long-standing and divisive debate, from the exact definition of when human life begins, to the implementation of contradictory and outdated policies. Frontliners remain to be health workers, as well as non-government organizations such as WGNRR and EnGendeRights who continue the fight for safe, legal abortions in the Philippines while doing what they can in their power to assist girls and women in need.

Amid heated debates, remember the women caught in the middle of it all: those who cannot exercise bodily autonomy, who are forced into bearing children out of traumatic assault, and whose health and even lives are endangered due to a lack of options.