Free contraception controversially rolled out in the Philippines

Contraception has long been controversial in the Philippines. Bucking trends, President Duterte recently issued an executive order allowing government agencies to distribute free contraceptives.

Mothers undergo counselling and implant insertion at the Bunawan Health Center. Government health workers have partnered with the private sector to provide free contraceptives. (Photo: Mariel Gardiola

Senin, Februari Feb 2017

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Contraception, condoms and sex education – for decades they have sparked controversy and debate in the the deeply Catholic nation of the Philippines. 


But bucking trends, President Rodrigo Duterte recently issued an executive order. It allows government agencies to distribute free contraceptives to six million poor women.

 

Madonna Virola and Mariel Gardiola have this report on the rollout from Davao City in the southern Philippines. 

Local population officers here in Bunawan village are talking to mothers who have turned up for free contraceptives.

Twenty-eight-year old Melanie is among the crowd and says she wishes the choice to have a contraceptive implant fitted had come a decade earlier.

Melanie fell pregnant at the age of 12.  She wanted to keep studying, she says, but didn’t have a choice.

Now she has four children and lives with her husband, who works seasonally on mango farms. They are struggling to afford to send all four children to school.

Jerrielyn Lewis, one of the population officers here says she often sees similar cases, with a range of factors at play in teen pregnancies, from poverty to pop culture.

“Even cartoons have subdued sexual elements and violence. It comes in pairs, drugs, sex and violence: It’s on television even in the cartoons—they can witness that,” said Lewis. 

She believes that early exposure to sex through the media is connected with children becoming sexually active at a younger age.

Lewis continued, “there was even an incident wherein the mother and the daughter had implant insertions on the same day because her daughter was already a mother of two.”  

Posters and booklets on Family Planning are available at the center in English, Tagalog and Cebuano. (Photo: Mariel Gardiola)

Population officers like Jeff Fuentes have welcomed President Duterte’s executive order, which advocates family planning and related services.

 

Addressing the unmet need for modern family planning is tantamount to addressing multiple issues like maternal death, infant death; teen, adolescent pregnancies.

- Population officer, Jeff Fuentes

Fuentes says it’s alarming the Philippines has one of the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the region. Data from the National Demographic Health Survey in 2013 showed 1 in 10 Filipino women aged between 15 and 19 had begun childbearing.

A month before the president’s executive order, the health department announced plans for rights-based sex education in schools, and the distribution of condoms in public high schools.

 

Mothers undergo counselling and implant insertion at the Bunawan Health Center. Government health workers have partnered with the private sector to provide free contraceptives. (Photo: Mariel Gardiola)

It hasn’t gone down well with the Catholic Church.

Priest Jermone Secillano argues that condoms have been distributed before, but he believes it doesn’t result in fewer pregnancies.

“We understand that they need to show they are doing something as an institution to address these issues. But maybe the government can do other things rather than distribute condoms,” Secillano said.

The Health Department, after talking to parents, has decided to leave condom distribution to local health centers. But they are sticking to plans to implement comprehensive sex education in schools.

 

Anti-abortion groups rallied hard against it. The Act even went to the Supreme court last year, which ended up banning the distribution of contraceptive implants.

Reproductive health advocate Lyca Sarenas of Oxfam International explains.

“To date, the most serious challenge is the Supreme Court decision in August 2016 to deny the government’s motion to lift the Temporary Restraining Order on public promotion, procurement and distribution of select family planning commodities,” she said.

The temporary restraining order, or TRO, legally prevented the government from distributing contraceptive drugs, devices and contraceptive implants.

But population officer Jerrilyn Lewis found this development deeply unsatisfying. 

 

You cannot say no to a mother of multiple children seeking for a health intervention – just because of the TRO we would turn her down? It’s heart breaking for us service providers.

- Population officer, Jerrilyn Lewis

But the president’s executive order, and a recent Supreme Court clarification has turned this around.

It means contraceptive implants, and other forms of contraception, can now be distributed by government workers, provided the supplies were not procured with government funds.

And local government health workers like Jerrielyn Lewis can continue to counsel their clients about their reproductive choices. 

While there is still strong resistance from the church, young mothers like Melanie hopes her practical decision will be respected.