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How Filipinas Will Feel 'Planet-Shaking' U.S. Backslide on Abortion Rights

The decision is closer to home than you might think.
by Ara Eugenio
Just now
A woman protester holds a flower during a rally to celebrate International Women's Day in Manila on March 8, 2018. The protesters including the relatives of victims of the extra-judicial killings, assailed the government of continuing violence against women and the drug war.

(TW: Story mentions rape, incest.)

Living in the Philippines where abortion is outlawed, Julia (full name withheld to protect her identity) felt a sense of tragic comedy as liberals in the U.S. protested their Supreme Court's decision to void American women's right to terminate pregnancies. 

Filipinas have been so used to the law curtailing their reproductive rights that "we just often overlook how wrong it actually is", the 25-year-old told reportr. In that sense, she said, the misfortune is comical.

The deluge of outrage unleashed by the overturning of the landmark 1973 "Roe v. Wade" decision had unscored to her how having that choice to safely terminate a pregnancy means a great deal, but is often overshadowed by the grim conditions in her predominantly Catholic country. 

READ: U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Right to Abortion 

U.S. President Joe Biden had called the ruling a "tragic error" driven by "extreme ideology" that will now put in harm the health and lives of more women, especially marginalized ones, in the country. 

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"It’s planet-shaking," said Dr. Junice Melgar, co-founder of Likhaan Center for Women's Health who spent most of her career witnessing the devastating effects of unwanted and unintended pregnancies on the lives of women.

Melgar warns of a "ripple effect" that is bound to come for any country with a struggling sexual and reproductive health and rights movement, such as the Philippines.

ALSO READ: Ask Janella and Andi, Are Young Women Shamed for Getting Pregnant?

Ripple effect

The struggle for abortion rights differs from country to country, but with a powerful nation like the U.S. backsliding in front of a world where many states have become increasingly authoritarian, the Philippines, whose Reproductive Health Law has barely made a dent, cannot sit idly.

"Just like how Roe V Wade inspired many feminists around the world to push for changes in their laws around abortion, this will embolden already regressive thinking around women’s bodies and rights," Marevic Parcon, the executive director of Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights, told reportr.

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Abortion is completely prohibited in the country, with no exceptions even for pregnancies that resulted from rape or incest. In the Revised Penal Code, in effect since 1930, doctors and midwives caught performing the procedure face up to six years in prison, while women who go through it face two to six. 

Data show these restrictive laws, emboldened by religious dogma and a general lack of respect for the equal rights and dignity of women, fail to stop clandestine abortions from getting performed in the country, and only endanger their lives, said Parcon.

Every year, around 1,000 Filipinos die due to the lack of access to safe abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an American sexual health and reproductive rights advocacy group.

Most women who opt to end their pregnancies are married, Catholic, and have least three children, suggestive of how the decision to end a pregnancy doesn't just happen simply because a woman feels like it, according to the institute.

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"Abortions happen all the time, and this means, a woman out there is hurting as we speak. She could be bleeding kasi tinusok sarili niya ng hanger, o nagpahulog siya sa hagdan. This desperation, this resolve speaks of how decided she is and we must do trust her in this decision, that she knows what's best for her own life," added Parcon. 

All pregnancies have profound effects on the life of womenher physical and psychological health, economic stature, and even that of the people around herno matter if it's only been two weeks, three months, nine months, or even years. 

"You don’t have to wait na mapaluwal pa niya kasi she even has a 15% chance of dying from the pregnancy. Any pregnancy can put her at risk of complications that she can die from, so imagine the sheer discomfort of going through something you do not want and are not ready for," Melgar, the community doctor, said.

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"I truly understand women whose pregnancy is unintended but will still carry it to term. I have nothing against that decision. But there are women who really suffer, what do we do with them?," she added.

ALSO READ: What's It Like to Be a Young, Sexually Active Woman During COVID?

Abortion as 'the dream' that shouldn't die

For Melgar, Parcon, their fellow activists, development workers, health workers, and the larger community of Filipino women who have yet truly decide for their own bodies and lives, the abortion's decriminalization is the aspiration, a decades-old dream. 

"'Yung pag challenge ng exercise to bodily autonomy, hindi siya talaga dapat legislated or within the realms of the legal sphere of societies because otherwise, it can always be threatened. At the end of the day, what is abortion? It is a medical procedure," Parcon said, citing the World Health Organization.

At the center of the anti-abortion positions is the idea that an embryo (up to 10 weeks gestation) or fetus (from 10 weeks to delivery) is as valuable as a living woman's life, and that preventing it from being birthed regardless of all threat of harm it is causing and could cause towards her life is a must. 

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"How can you compare a living woman with agency, with responsibility to her other children, to the community, with a potential life? It's really an assault on women's value," Melgar said, noting how she's seen dozens of cases of rape victims who got pregnant and were forced to carry their pregnancies to term. "Some of them couldn’t even bear to see the child," she said.

"It’s really an incursion into a woman’s decision, and whatever that is, 'yung duty ng state and her doctor is to make sure she isn’t harmed by that decision," she added.

President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. during the campaign had expressed support for the decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape and incest.

While the favorable position is welcome, analysts said there's no actual plan that supports it, and given "more pressing" problems at hand, like COVID and the economy, the state of the country's sexual and reproductive health rights would likely remain "status quo", at the very least. 

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"Lagi namang ganon. Nag-susuffer naman talaga tayo sa hierarchy of priorities. But as always, we as people, as women, we will continue organizing ourselves, as we did for any other legislated wins of women with regards to our rights. Alongside that kind of hope na ang gobyerno ay may gagawin, kami naman ay magpapatuloy din sa pag-challenge, sa pagtatrabaho, sa pag-fuel nung fire," Parcon said.

"The aspiration shouldn't die, even and especially when we're coming from zero," said Melgar. 

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