Post-lockdown, teen pregnancy in the Philippines is on the rise

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Teen pregnancy in the Philippines had been the highest in Southeast Asia up to 2019. While the numbers dipped during the years-long lockdown, medical experts warn that the effects may not last.

Two years worth of lockdowns had forced young Filipinos to stay at home, limiting social interactions with peers and inadvertently reducing opportunities for sexual encounters. From 495 births per day in 2019, the rate of births to teenage mothers went down by 13% the following year. But as lockdown restrictions loosen and more young Filipinos are vaccinated, medical experts worry that the effects will not last.

“It’s already coming back because the root causes of the problem were never addressed,” said family planning specialist Dr. Mario Festin during a panel discussion hosted by DKT Philippines Foundation, a non-government organization that promotes family planning through education, research, and outreach and efforts.

Prior to the pandemic, the Philippines had one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the Southeast Asia region. Although access to contraceptives has gradually improved after the implementation of the Reproductive Health Law in 2013, the need for emergency contraception continues to be a barrier for better sexual health and wellness for young Filipinos. Medical experts and Filipinos themselves agree: there is a necessity and desire for emergency contraception to be legalized in the Philippines.

In June 2021, President Rodrigo Duterte declared that the prevention of teenage pregnancy should be considered a national priority. The executive order (EO) acknowledges the “endangered patterns of discrimination, deep-seated norms and attitudes that normalize and justify violence against women.” However, EO141 points out that the root causes of pregnancy can be fully addressed by sex education, employment, and health promotion.

But medical experts say that more steps should be taken to address the problem — and it starts with making emergency contraception a viable option. Emergency contraception or EC is also known as the morning after pill, and can be used to prevent unwanted pregnancy during instances of unprotected sex. The featured medical experts during the DKT Philippines panel concur that EC is safe to use even for teenagers.

Postinor, a brand of EC, had been previously approved for sale and importation of the drug until the Bureau of Food and Drugs declared the pill as an abortifacient. 20 years after the pill was outlawed, there are still no legal and viable alternatives to EC besides the Yuzpe method. This method makes use of multiple, regular oral contraceptive pills in the absence of a single morning after pill. However, the World Health Organization recommends the use of EC pills, because the Yuzpe Method may cause more severe side effects including nausea and vomiting.

READ: What they don’t say about emergency contraception in the Philippines

There is a strong interest in having EC available for sale in the Philippines. In a survey among young, unmarried Filipinas conducted by a global research agency, 73% of respondents expressed interest in the morning after pill. Medical experts are in agreement. In an online survey conducted by DKT Philippines Foundation, they learned that 68% of medical doctors believe that the Food and Drug Administration should reconsider the 20-year-old ban on emergency contraception.

In fact, Representative Maria Lourdes Acosta-Alba, who is the chairperson of the Committee on Women and Gender Equality, believes that it is imperative to include EC on the list of essential medicine as a means to empower both women and the economy.

Obstetrics and Gynecology specialist Dr. Bernabe Marinduque cites anecdotal evidence on the need for EC, especially in cases of natural disasters. Marinduque recalls that there were many instances of rape and sexual abuse of young women after Typhoon Yolanda, but the absence of EC made them vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies.

Despite medical experts underscoring the need for EC, the same DKT Philippines online survey showed that there are still 3% of doctors who would not prescribe it to their patients, believing that it’s an abortifacient. According to DKT Philippines Chairman Hyam Bolande, changing the term “emergency contraception” may be key to changing perceptions, as it may have potentially alarming effects. Bolande adds that EC is actually a peri-coital pill — aside from using it right after unprotected sex, it can also be safely used up to 24 hours before the sexual act.

While the pandemic has afforded some breathing space for the rising rate of teenage pregnancy in the country, teenagers now need support to sustain these improved numbers. Ultimately, panelists emphasize that teenagers should have better patient rights to empower their decision making. Having access to the right contraception, they said, is a “game-changer.”

Teenagers, they say, aren’t as ignorant of their actions as many believe; they simply need room to act wisely.