Risks of abortion ban fan pro-abortion debate

By Caroline J. Howard, ABS-CBN News Channel

Posted at Aug 06 2010 02:47 PM | Updated as of Aug 10 2010 04:19 AM

MANILA, Philippines - The controversial debate over abortion is heating up. But beyond the polarized views from moral, scientific and practical standpoints, the argument may just be taking flesh in the lives of women facing risks in the country's abortion clinics.

A New York-based advocacy group says the abortion ban in the country has led to a human rights crisis for women.

Citing data from the Guttmacher Institute, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) reveals over half-a-million women in the Philippines had abortions in 2008. Of these, 90,000 suffered complications, and 1,000 died.

The CRR says there should be a law allowing women to have abortions in special cases, including when a fetus shows problems, or if the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother's health.

The Catholic church is averse to abortion. Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) legal counsel Jo Imbong believes the high death rate from unsafe abortions is not a justification to legalize it.

The moral issue

Speaking on ANC's "The Rundown" on Thursday, former Manila Congressman Bienvenido Abante, a known pro-life advocate, argued abortion as a practice was a violation of the country's moral laws.

"The word abortion means it's a termination of pregnancy resulting in and to death, and you can't justify it. You need to amend the Constitution because the Constitution clearly says you can't apply abortion in this country because it would mean the death of an unborn child, the death of the innocent. You can't justify it," he said.

"We're not talking about whether you're Catholic or not, but the life of an innocent child. When you speak about human rights and the killing a child in the womb, that's a contradiction in terms. I don't think there is any compromise," he said. "I know of some women who have been raped. They're in my church right now. They were able to give birth and now they love the child. It should not be my choice whether a child should live or not. That's God's domain."

To address the high number of deaths from unsafe abortions, Abante says the church and family are duty-bound to inform the public of its risks.

Exceptions to abortion ban

EnGendeRights, a women's group, is pushing for access to safe and legal abortion in the country.

"It's not a matter of Catholicism but changing laws for the better," said EnGendeRights Executive Director Atty. Clara Rita Padilla, in an interview also on ANC. "The law is not reasonable. It has no exception at all. There is no separation of church and state. It establishes the Catholic religion which is predominantly opposed to access to safe and legal abortion."

Padilla cited the "liberalization of abortion laws" where predominantly Catholic countries have realized the need to make the practice of abortion safe and legal. France and Italy as well as Columbia, Mexico and Portugal now provide access to safe and legal abortion.

While Hungary has the same constitutional provision that strives to protect life from conception and the life of the woman, Padilla noted it also allows abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Given the alarming rate of deaths due to unsafe abortions, Padilla said the Philippine government has the duty to address the public health issue.

Padilla also pointed out the need for government to revisit provisions in the law and make room for exceptions.

"Our law, the Revised Penal Code is circa 1930s, translated from the old Spanish penal code. It's too strict, unreasonable. There are no exemptions even on rape, fetal  impairments," Padilla said.

As early as 2006, Padilla noted, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) had recommended to the Philippine government to remove the punitive provisions on abortion.\

"This is a bad law. We should have exceptions. We should have freedom of thought, conscience and religion. We should respect a woman's right to her own body. It is a grave violation of her right to life and health by making it illegal."

To emphasize the graveness of addressing the issue, Padilla noted how rape victims are not allowed to terminate their pregnancies, often forcing them to have unsafe abortions.

"I know of studies of the Women's Crisis Center where some clients who became pregnant as a result of rape tried to induce abortion, and even commit suicide," she said.

Padilla also cited a case decided by the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to which the Philippines is a signatory, wherein a 17-year-old woman was denied safe and legal abortion by Peru despite having an anencephalitic fetus (a fetus with a partial brain prone to death even at birth).

"The Committee said the young woman had a right to terminate her pregnancy. That even denying it [referring to a safe abortion procedure]was torture," she said.

Padilla said the matter of unwanted or unintended pregnancies could be addressed through the creation of a health care bill, sex education in schools, and by providing access to modern contraceptives.

Is there a safe and legal abortion

But proposals for a law on abortion could face an uphill battle as the Reproductive Health (RH) Care Bill continues to struggle through legislation.

Abante said the RH bill could be a precursor to passing a measure on safe and legal abortion.

"The RH bill is an introduction to an abortion bill," Abante said. "All countries which have legalized abortion started with RH laws, introducing contraceptives which would prevent pregnancy. You begin to dwell with a little liberal tendencies, later on there's no stopping it. To me, there's no safe and legal abortion because abortion is the killing of an innocent child."

Padilla, however, said the RH bill is different from a bill pushing for selective abortion. Contrary to common perception, Padilla said the RH bill does not provide any ground for safe and legal abortion.

"There is a difference between contraceptives and abortifacients. Definitely, we need a reproductive health care bill to prevent unwanted pregnancy and abortion, but in cases where there are unwanted or unintended pregnancies, as a result of rape, we're saying it could save a woman's life if there is access to safe and legal abortion."

Padilla said the measure would be up to Congress. She added there is growing support among lawmakers and the public for the proposal on providing access to safe and legal abortion.