BY AARON GERTLER
September 30, 2010, was an afternoon Mass like any other, until the parishioners saw the man in the top hat.
Carlos Celdran, dapper and furious, strode to the front of Manila Cathedral, in full sight of the mayor of Manila and some of the Philippines’ most powerful bishops. He thrust a sign into the air. “DAMASO”, it read—the name of a villainous priest featured in the novel Noli Me Tangere, written by national hero Jose Rizal, and required reading for every high-schooler in the Philippines.
“Stop getting involved in politics!” Celdran shouted, addressing the leaders of the congregation. His words echoed in the vast space. Everyone heard.
Though he later apologized to the churchgoers for “ruining your day,” Celdran—a tour guide and performance artist with 180,000 Twitter followers—told reporters that his actions were justified. After all, he said, the Catholic officials he addressed were, through ferocious lobbying and a campaign of mass disinformation, delaying the passage of a crucial reproductive-health bill.
The “RH Bill” as it is called throughout the country, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Reading through its provisions, I saw promises, some specific but most vague, of greater support for women’s health, medically comprehensive sex education in public schools, and government coverage of contraceptive costs (though abortion remains totally illegal). In the context of the Philippines, where the population has doubled since 1980 and the poorest fifth of the nation’s women have, on average, over twice as many children as the wealthiest fifth, the bill seemed sensible.
And to some extent, it must also have seemed sensible to the thirteen senators who voted in December 2012, just before their Christmas vacation in the world’s most Catholic nation, to finally pass a bill first proposed fifteen years before. Though the CBCP refused to heed Celdran’s demands—the PR battle was furious up to and including the day of the vote—their efforts fell short. Eight Senate votes against, each from a conservative Catholic, were not enough, and so the RH Bill became RH Law.
When I spoke to Carlos Celdran over Skype in January, the bill for which he’d fought so hard was due, the next day, to officially pass into effect. Still railing against what he saw as the outsize influence of a small bloc of conservative Catholics, Celdran celebrated the victory of a law that would shrink the gap between rich and poor by ensuring the latter had access to the same contraceptives the former could pay for out of pocket. The Senate vote, he said, was “the Philippines’ chance to prove to the world that we aren’t the Catholic version of Iran”—and his nation passed that electoral test with flying colors.
Senator Loren Legarda, one of the thirteen “yes” voters, used more moderate language in explaining her support, but her satisfaction was clear. In an email, she wrote: “Our people wanted this bill, and they wanted it now. It heralds the mainstreaming of what used to be the marginal sector of women’s health rights.” Though she referred in Senate deliberations to the Philippines’ “struggle to see the truth,” Legarda welcomed what Celdran called anti- Bill disinformation as crucial to the democratic process. “The members of the Roman Catholic Church are well within their right as citizens to express their stand on various social issues, such as reproductive health”—but in the end, they were outvoted.
Jo Imbong, a spokeswoman for the young, pro-Catholic political party Ang Kapatiran, explained things differently: “The bill is not about health, but about controlling the fertility of women.” Though it may poll well, the RH Bill’s seeming popularity comes from “40 years of propaganda” by the government, the national media, and various NGOs. Imbong sees it as a potential stepping stone to active popu lation control—something along the lines of China’s one-child law—which would be disastrous for a nation whose families have always been large. Vicente Sotto, one of the senators who opposed the bill in the final tally, made the same point in sharper language.
“It’s obvious now that what I have been saying all along is true, that this is a foreign imposition for [the United Nations] so-called Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to depopulate third-world countries,” said Sotto, in a speech three days before the RH vote.
Until recently, propaganda or no propaganda, the side of Sotto and Imbong held firm control over the fate of various failed RH bills, one or another of which has been sitting lifeless in Congress since 1998. Once put to a vote, however, the bill’s current incarnation passed through both houses of Congress in the span of a week—an electoral landslide. Why?
Carlos Celdran proposed a long list of factors: Conflict within the Catholic Church, support from a motley mix of Muslims, freethinkers, and members of the homegrown religious group Iglesia de Cristo, and the death of Jaime Sin, a charismatic archbishop Celdran called “a big teddy bear … so cute and cuddly you forgot he was actually a misogynist pig.” He calls his own role a modest one, though he’s proud to have “sexified” for Filipino youth an issue with a musty reputation. “After [the Manila protest], the bill was no longer associated only with angry lesbians at the University of the Philippines.” Other sources pointed to a major compromise added to the bill in the course of deliberations: Filipinos under 18 will require parental permission to access reproductive-health services unless they are or have been pregnant before.
The most influential force behind the bill’s passage, however, was likely President Benigno Aquino, son of ex-President Corazon Aquino. The latter entered office with massive popular support when dictator Ferdinand Marcos was forced from power in 1986; soon after, she cut the contraceptive funding of the Marcos regime, with the blessing of the Church. Her son, though also a member of the Liberal Party, took a different approach.
“It’s obvious to anyone who’s been following this that it’s the President’s push,” said Red Tani, who founded the pro-RH Filipino Freethinkers in 2009 and now runs the country’s most popular blog. Without Benigno’s demand for a vote, Tani thinks that a “major strike” from the CBCP could have sidelined the bill once again. But once push came to shove, influential female Senators and “young stars in Congress” regained political momentum and found just enough votes to get by (the House of Representatives supported RH just 113 to 104, with many abstentions).
Imbong sees the same cause for the bill’s coming to a vote, but considers Aquino’s “flexing his political muscle” as an imposition on the independence of Congress. “This corrective influence of the executive branch […] did not fit well with the culture at all.” Historically, Imbong said, Filipino elders usually move in with their families when they lack the means to support themselves. The RH Law, by discouraging large families, bodes ill for the future of workers who haven’t yet had children.
Lance Katigbak, a filmmaker and sophomore at the University of the Philippines who has been protesting RH legislation since 2008, put forth a similar argument. “Funding contraception is unsustainable,” he told me in an email. “Yes, it might be easier for [the poor] to get by if they have fewer mouths to feed. But at what expense? They might be less poor, but they’ll still be poor. And when they grow up, they’ll have fewer children to take care of them, fewer children to till their land.” Like Imbong, Katigbak favors a redirection of RH funds to better schools and maternal care, rather than birth control; a common anti-Bill slogan attacks “reducing poverty by reducing the poor.”
These attacks on the bill—which invoke the specter of a “demographic winter” after old retirees overwhelm the resources of the young—are common in secular debate on the bill, from editorials in college newspapers to Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. Enrile, in a press conference, argued that no law should interfere with the production of the Philippines’ “top export”—young workers who emigrate overseas and send money home.
When I asked Dr. Junice Melgar, the co-director of women’s-health NGO Likhaan, about these potential long-term pitfalls, she shrugged them off: “It’s a common argument, but not very well-rounded.” A member of the health commission now planning the implementation of the new law, Melgar made the point that nations whose birthrates drop almost always see major social and economic benefits afterward. Other supporters of the bill mentioned Thailand, a nearby nation with similar demographics, which began a national family-planning campaign in the 1970s and now has a GDP twice that of the Philippines.
But Melgar can’t seem to get her points across to her fellow commissioners—one of whom is an anti-RH doctor, and two of whom come from a policy group, the “Bishops and Businessmen’s Conference”, that wears religion on its sleeve. Melgar sees those who persist in fighting RH (lawsuits have been prepared against it in both local and national courts) as a minority, but powerful even so, and “connected with moneyed agents, even in the U.S.,” who she says meddle in Filipino politics from afar, much like the NGOs Imbong attacked.
Still, despite the difficulty of implementation, Melgar is optimistic about the bill’s future effects. Likhaan has already put many RH techniques into practice in small-to-medium towns: Educating women, distributing contraceptives, and keeping husbands under control. “We have come across men who charged us with being marriage-wreckers, with teaching their women to talk back,” she tells me, “but eventually we win over most of them. Some of them even join us to help.” Melgar hopes the RH Bill can effect such culture change on a national scale, preventing some of the horrors she’s heard about or seen firsthand: Men pulling out their wives’ IUDs, or women who don’t know how to tell their husbands they don’t feel like sex on a given night.
“Typical Pinoy macho shit!” declares nonprofit manager Amie Perez on her blog, referring to the behavior Melgar mentioned, carried out by men who Perez tells me “come home drunk and want to have sex, or [their wives] get hurt.” She also hopes the RH Bill, whatever its legal effect, can help overcome Filipinos’ fear that condoms are somehow unmasculine. When I Skype her, she’s in her office, situated in the midst of a trash-picker community. She works with the children of some of the Philippines’ poorest families, and has seen schools where sixty kids fill one classroom—and then leave, so that sixty more can come in the afternoon. Perez thinks it unlikely that RH money can help that many children find diplomas, but notes that this hasn’t stopped billboard advertisements from featuring children holding platters full of contraceptives: “I Can’t Eat Condoms,” as the slogan goes—so spend those 2.5 billion pesos (50 million U.S. dollars) elsewhere.
During our conversation, Carlos Celdran inverted the spending argument: “If a condom is 10 pesos, and people in this country are so poor that they’d rather buy an egg with those 10 pesos, the choice is easy.” When he isn’t leading tours, he often delivers contraceptives to low-income communities, so that they won’t have to make such choices.
But that’s on hold for now. A week after we spoke, Celdran was suddenly jailed for violating Penal Code Article 133, which prohibits “offending religious feelings;” it’s a charge he faced in 2010, but for which he paid bail and never mentioned when we spoke. Red Tani, now in the process of helping Celdran organize his legal defense, told me that even anti-RH advocates are shocked by his sentence—over a year in prison. Tani also noted that foes of the bill have an advantage in this respect: There is no law against offending the feelings of women’s health advocates.
His comments made me think of something Celdran told me: “Condoms exist here. I can walk to 7-11 and buy condoms right now. The RH Bill just levels the playing field.” Nowhere in the text of Senate Bill 2378 is any Filipino forced to limit their family size. But now that the bill is law, they will at least share the opportunity to do so with their wealthier countrymen. Lance Katigbak is right to call for stronger maternal health care—but Melgar is also correct when she asserts that a woman’s control over her own body is the first step to better health. The speed and scope of the bill’s impact remain uncertain, but as this Catholic nation begins to give contraception a chance, a future without 60-child classrooms may be within reach.
Aaron Gertler ’15 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.