Who really believes women’s reproductive health is the main concern in House Bill 96?
Last week in Manila, Malcolm Potts, grand-daddy of the
international family planning movement, announced
that unless the much debated “Reproductive Health” bill is passed in this
session of Congress, the Philippines would become the next Somalia. No
surprises in that. Within the same week, however, Bill Clinton, also visiting
Manila, amazed everyone (including his wife, no doubt) by stating
that the growing Philippines population is an asset to the country, and that
its babies, expanding the population at a rate of 2.04 per cent a year, are a
“massive natural resource”.
The Philippines, you may have noticed, is
currently the global focus of population and development debates. A hotly
debated population management bill has been tabled in one form or another for
years. Now, with the almost univocal support of national
media, the born-again “Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of
2010”, or HB
Bill 96, is being touted as the solution to women’s reproductive health,
women’s rights in the Philippines, and economic development for the poor. What
is being quietly avoided is any talk of population control, or, as the bill
terms it, “population management”.
Clinton’s comment – that population, or, in
real life, babies – are an asset, not a liability, puts a wedge in the argument
of the elites. So who is right? Is the growing population
of the Philippines a danger, threatening the very future of the Philippines
state? Or is it a primary source of wealth, and an opportunity to rev up (and
sustain) its economic engines?
The answer is, of course, more nuanced.
Population alone cannot provide economic might. But population can be
understood as a pre-requisite for economic development, and a means for growth
and achievement if other elements are primed and ready. These other factors
are, notably, educational opportunities (particularly for women), and economic
opportunities. The great limitation to achieving this in the Philippines, as
elsewhere in the developing world, is corruption.
Population control or population management
relies on the assumption that government can and should curb population growth
in order to provide the goods necessary for economic development: education,
opportunity, housing, protection and stewardship of natural resources. But if
the government priority is managing the population according to a schedule of
targets and goals, what of the dignity and rights of the persons being
It is obvious to anyone who bothers to
actually read the Philippines bill that population management tops the
hierarchy of principles. The idea that it is primarily concerned with the
promotion of human rights, or women’s rights is an illusion.
This is clear from the very first page of
the bill, which states: “This policy is anchored on the rationale that
sustainable human development is better assured with a manageable population of
healthy, educated and productive citizens.” The guiding principles of the bill
then tell us: “The limited resources of the country cannot be suffered to be
spread so thinly to service a burgeoning multitude that makes the allocations
grossly inadequate and effectively meaningless”. In case this were not clear
enough, the author of the bill, in his explanatory notes, provides the following
elaboration: “We cannot address adequately the problem of poverty… if we do not
squarely address the problem of a bloated population and high and unwanted
Perhaps nothing illustrates the bill’s
“management” priorities so clearly as the provision for mandatory counseling of
couples seeking a marriage license on the government determined “ideal family
size” of two children. In terms of human rights, this would take the
Philippines closer to China and India than the liberal democracies that are
applauding this bill. In line with trends in the West, however, the bill does
not provide conscience protection and rights for health care workers.
The potential for human rights and
democratic freedoms to be trampled on would be increased by the growth of the
public health bureaucracy. New government agencies and functions would be
established to facilitate the government managed purchase and provision of
contraception to the people. Large scale hastily defined bureaucratic
structures are prime opportunities for increased corruption – an increase the
Philippines can ill afford – and point to the betterment of petty bureaucrats
and politicians on the payroll of wealthy western lobbies rather than the
people of the Philippines.
Let’s be clear: these provisions are in
direct conflict with the right of men and women to marry and found a family,
freely determining their own fertility. Such human rights and freedoms –
guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reiterated in
numerous international documents since that time – cannot be sustained within
the context of a government managed population system.
There is added reason for concern,
therefore, when the RH bill takes note of China’s one-child policy, without
acknowledging that the significant decline in births in China happened before the tyrannical policy
was implemented. The Chinese government had been talking down the birth rate
for a decade and had no need, let alone right, to impose strict family
limitation on its people -- a policy that is now backfiring with a critical sex
ratio imbalance and a rapidly ageing population.
More remarkably, the authors of the
Philippines bill fail to acknowledge the significance of the decline in
fertility that has already taken place in their own country. There has been
official encouragement of family planning in the Philippines as
long as anywhere else in the world and contraception has been available for
those who want it, alongside the natural family planning method encouraged by
church authorities in the mainly Catholic country.
In fact, the United States based Population
Reference Bureau, a leading promoter of population control, notes in a current report
that the birth rate fell from six births per woman in 1970 to 3.3 in 2006. The
fact that infant and child mortality is also falling moderates the effect of
lower fertility but is likely to further bring down the birth rate by a process
of natural adjustment similar to what happened in the West itself before the
The report further notes: “Almost all women
in the Philippines know at least one method of family planning and currently
married women know an average of eight methods. The users of modern methods
(such as the pill, injectables, IUDs, and female sterilization) account for
two-thirds of all family planning users. Women at all economic levels are using
family planning, even at the lowest wealth quintile, where almost 41
percent of married woman are using any method of family planning.”
If there is still an “unmet need for family
planning” of 22 per cent, as PRB claims, this is not a problem that warrants
the sledgehammer of a virtual two-child national policy, with mandatory
counseling plus government funding and promotion of contraceptive methods which
are culturally objectionable to a large number of people and which, in every
country where they are widely used, bring with them the demand for legalized
Finally, it is worth noting that many
states that have pursued population strategies as recently as the 1980’s, have
reversed those policies and are anxiously attempting to find ways to increase
birth rates. This is true both for Asian countries such as Singapore and South
Korea, that are seeking to reverse specific policies, as well as for other
countries – Asian and western – that are unable to reverse general population
declines that are now threatening formerly robust economies and social systems.
Japan, Taiwan, Germany and other parts of Europe come to mind.
The debate surrounding the Philippines legislation
has relied on high profile interventions, much rhetoric, and almost no analysis
of the bill itself. Statements such as those by Malcolm Potts reveal an
individual bias that takes no account of the data of population and fertility
trends, nor of the content of the current bill under debate.
The need for separate legislation developed
for the care of women’s reproductive health while respecting the human rights
of men and women is essential. More essential still, is the need to ensure that
such legislation addresses the key challenges in front of us and does not
masquerade as a policy to remove or deny those freedoms, while surreptitiously
enabling other ends.
If the Philippines legislators wish to
table a population management bill they are free to do so. But they must be
clear about the terms of the bill and engage in open debate based on its
merits. In such a debate, leading economists might be engaged, and the data
available from countless national population policies should be examined. In
any event, a population management bill should not be sold to the country under
the guise of necessary maternal health reforms, or increased women’s health and
Anna Halpine is the founder of the World Youth Alliance, a global coalition of
young people committed to promoting the dignity of the person.