Philippines population bill speaks with forked tongue

Who really believes women’s reproductive health is the main concern in House Bill 96?
Anna Halpine | 3 December 2010
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Bill Clinton in Manila. Photo: Philippines InquirerLast 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 and international 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 “managed”?

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 fertility”.

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 contraceptive era.

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 abortion.

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 rights.

Anna Halpine is the founder of the World Youth Alliance, a global coalition of young people committed to promoting the dignity of the person.

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