Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Unpacking Choice and Reproductive Rights

Why is the reproduction of life political?

Fundamentalists rest easy on grounding reality on something solid, eternal, unchanging. There is security in anchoring one’s view of the world on basic principles from which spring beliefs about who we are and what we ought and ought not to do. Once these fundamentals become shaky, it is feared that identities (who we are) and morals that guide us (what we ought and ought not to do) become shaky as well.

The Reproductive Health bill is a landmark policy shift that gives women control over their body’s reproductive functions through state resources. It is revolutionary, and thus feared, on two accounts.

First, should the bill make it through Congress and approved by the Executive, the public domain will have acknowledged that reproduction, i.e. the creation of life, is not a completely private matter between mother and father. Motherhood confers to women a unique bodily function. It is often argued that because we have a uterus – ‘nature’ (i.e. God) has given us an immutable identity – that of bearing children. In other words, because we have a uterus, our biological make-up forever cements us in the mold of reproducing life. True, motherhood is a gift and fertility is revered in many cultures around the world. One then wonders why this matter is intensely political in a large and differentiated society such as ours.

Those opposing the bill have argued that the State should not dictate upon families the number of children they want to bear. Advocates have answered the bill makes no such imposition. Indeed, it does not. The bill, however, gives women a last say on what happens to their bodies. It is revolutionary in that it wrests control over the reproduction of life away from ‘nature’ (i.e. God) and men. The sexual act need not naturally result to pregnancy. This is why anti-RH bill people claim that our society will develop a ‘contraceptive culture’ and that the young will become more ‘promiscuous.’ The image of the ‘loose’ woman offends many. This moral guidepost says women ought not to engage in sexual acts with any man of her choosing in any context. The sexual act is reserved for married heterosexual partners, because, fundamentalists argue, the sole function of sex is procreation. Unpacking this moral guidepost unearths many donts and hidden punishments:

1. Only men and women can have a union blessed by the most powerful institutions in our society – the State and the Church.
2. Marriage confers rights and protection to this coupling that is denied to any other combination (men-men, women-women).
3. Sexual intercourse should occur only in a marital context. To do otherwise paints one, especially women, as immoral and therefore undesirable.
4. Sexual intercourse’s sole purpose is to reproduce life.

Unpacking all that, we get to the heart of the matter – how to control and harness reproductive labor. At the top of this structure of control are the State and Church. Their powers to constrain individual behavior discipline and order human beings in such a way as to benefit both. The State must have a last say on all things public, i.e. what concerns all of us, and the Church on all things moral, i.e. what we should and should not do.

Between these two at the top of the pyramid however, the State is a much more democratic, more participatory and less opaque structure of power. We do not get to elect who mans the Church. We do not get to argue and debate over theological matters. We do not get to negotiate moral matters as per the Catholic hierarchy.

Secondly, the bill is revolutionary (thus feared) because it pierces the sanctity of the ‘family unit.’ The Catholic Church and other fundamentalist organizations jealously guard its sanctity. They often argue that the State (or the public domain) should have no say about reproductive matters. The same argument can also be made for domestic violence. What goes on between husband and wife is a private matter. What goes on between parent and child is also a private matter. But the so-called sanctity of the domestic domain cloaks power hierarchies within the family unit. This traces back to the history of marriage as an institution where the wife is the husband’s property. Parenthood also confers ownership of children. To acknowledge that wives and children have rights independent of the societal unit to which they belong unveils the cloak of the family’s ‘sanctity.’ Women are individuals who are more than the sum of their mammary glands and uterus. Children are individuals who are more than the result of reproductive labor.

This is why the Church and other fundamentalists have fought tooth and nail against the Reproductive Health bill. It unravels the order of the ‘natural,’ that is, it unravels the order of God.

SOURCE: Philippine Commentary


manuelbuencamino said...

and God is the church and the state.

Steven said...

This seems to have the issue rather backwards. The bill doesn't "pierce the sanctity of the family unit, it reinforces that sanctity by allowing those who wish to make private decisions the information they need to make those decisions effectively and the access to the resources they need to implement those decisions.

The dispute here is not only about the substance of the bill, it's about power. For many years the Catholic Church has been using the coercive force of the state to impose its doctrines on the public, including the non-Catholic public and Catholics who might feel inclined to make their own choices. This is completely inappropriate in a democracy: the Church is accountable not to the people, but to the Vatican, and Government is accountable only to the people.

What really scares the Church is that this issue challenges the long-standing assumption that the Church speaks on behalf of its flock. The State is not the initiator here. Every available poll and survey, for years, shows that the vast majority of Filipinos, including Catholics, want the State to provide access to scientifically accurate information about contraception and to effective contraceptive methods. A broad chorus of experts has reinforced that demand by pointing out that population increase can easily overwhelm both resources and the capacity of the economy to provide employment. The State is simply responding - as it should - to popular demand and expert advice.

The Church simply can't accept that the State is listening directly to the flock, not to the self-appointed shepherds, especially on an issue that the Church considers to be within its area of expertise - though it's hard to see what expertise a bunch of aging celibates in the luxury of the Vatican could possibly have on the realities of family life in the Philippines. That is a direct threat to the political power of the Church, something the Church has gotten rather used to and would rather not give up.

Let's please not pretend this has anything to do with the "order of the natural" or "the order of God". This is about what the people want and the nation needs vs what the Vatican thinks is appropriate. If God has an opinion on the matter, she's keeping it to herself.

Jesusa Bernardo said...

Had Philippine society been on guard against "loose men" as much as it has been against "loose women," I'd probably listen more to the good old patriarchal Church.

Then again, the country urgently needs to control population growth if we genuinely seek better life for our people. High time we start listening more to common sense than to any religious teaching that ultimately leads to the exhaustion of God-given natural resources.

Dean Jorge Bocobo said...

It remains to be seen how "revolutionary" the RH Bill actually is, if and when it passes into Law.

In the 1987 Constitution are also to be found many such "revolutionary" declarations, as you may find in the RH Bill or read into it by implication.

I'm with Jesusa's point about population management, which I believe is the true payload of the bill.

Sexual revolutions have to be conducted on far deeper and broader ground than some bill to be passed by Congress.

It's not like Roe v. Wade or something is it?

If we can get the govt to pay for the condoms that USAID used to, I'll be happy if that saves one life from HiV Aids or preserves a family from at least a year of too many members.

Jesusa Bernardo said...

Indeed, DJB, the RH Bill's greater if not actual payload is population management. I do agree with Sparks, however, that if made into law, the bill is "revolutionary"--if closely considered within the context of patriarchal Church's protracted hold on the government's policies on population and family.

While I'm not so sure about its specific provisions (no thanks to my bias against its authors/sponsors' political "loyalty"), it should potentially legalize, or help to legalize Filipinas' rights over the reproductive parts of their bodies.

sparks said...


All my pragmatic and policy-oriented arguments for the bill can be found in my blog of course under the label "RH." This is an attempt to explain on a meta level :-)


Actual results on the ground aside, passage of the bill will be revolutionary for simply defeating the men in robes!


Haha, I forgot to mention double standards on looseness. :)