JUST DAYS after writing about “reproductive coercion” in the United States, here comes news about a development in our very own country, in the posh confines of Ayala Alabang Village, in which “reproductive coercion” is being carried out not just by a single male or a group of males, but by the barangay council itself.
“Reproductive coercion” refers to the use of violence or coercion by men on their female partners or wives to “sabotage” the women’s efforts to prevent pregnancy or to force them to become pregnant—against their will.
Now comes the barangay council of Ayala Alabang, led by its chairman, Alfred Xerez-Burgos Jr. (I am told he is a wealthy real estate developer), in effect making it illegal for anyone—man or woman—to use “abortifacients” and what they call “anti-conceptional substances or devices” within the barangay.
One issue I can take up with the ordinance known for short as the “Protection of the Unborn Child Ordinance of 2011,” is that it defines “abortifacients” so broadly, well beyond the scope of present law. Under our laws, contraceptives (or what the council calls “anti-conceptionals”) are perfectly legal and deemed safe and have been in fact distributed by the government for decades. But the council includes among what they call “abortifacients” “IUDs and hormonal contraceptives,” providing no explanation for why these cause abortion. The world scientific community, including the World Health Organization, it must be noted, has long determined that both the device and hormonal contraceptives work primarily by preventing conception.
(Since the ordinance defines the “unborn” as a human life “beginning from the union of the sperm and the egg until … birth,” and defines abortion as the termination of a life “from conception,” then it shouldn’t have any problem with drugs or devices that prevent the release of an ovum or the union of the egg and sperm, shouldn’t it?)
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ANOTHER ISSUE to take up with the good men and women of the council is the practicability of their ordinance. It provides, for instance, for every pharmacy or drugstore to keep a register of barangay residents who buy contraceptives, including condoms, from them. The identified users would then be meted out a fine or a short jail sentence. It also provides that foreigners (and there are many in the village) who buy and use contraceptives, after paying the fine and serving their sentence, would have deportation proceedings lodged against them.
How do the barangay officials propose to enforce their ordinance? What would prevent any Ayala Alabang resident from buying his or her contraceptive supplies from any drugstore outside the barangay? Would “tanods” (watchmen) resort to stopping residents at random and going through their handbags or pockets for pills and condoms? By conducting random internal examinations of women to check if they are using IUDs? How would they know the couples who use family planning? By barging into bedrooms unannounced and cross-examining them on their mating habits?
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THE CITY of Manila was also guilty of reproductive coercion, under then Mayor Lito Atienza, when it imposed a ban on all other methods of family planning except “natural” family planning through a resolution that was enforced by political pressure and the complicity of health officials. But since the ban hurt mostly poor women, very little was heard about it, and many from the influential middle- and upper-classes, even those who resided in Manila, simply ignored it because they could buy their commodities elsewhere. But the urban poor women ended up having two or more children than they planned for because free or subsidized contraceptives were no longer available. Others had to spend more for transportation to other cities to buy their supplies or seek counseling. Still others simply resorted to dangerous abortions.
The matronas, their daughters and granddaughters, the expat wives and executives of Ayala Alabang Village could very well shrug or laugh off the barangay ordinance. After all, there is no way that the council could even begin to impose its ridiculous rules. But what of housemaids within the village, or women in urban poor communities ringing Ayala Alabang? When daily family budgets are so tight, an extra expense of even P1 can be a burden. Can these poor women afford the extra jeepney fare to Las Piñas, Parañaque or Makati just to buy their supply of pills? And if the barangay health center is not allowed to dispense commodities or advice, where will the women go?
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ONE RESIDENT confided to me that some weeks back she was asked to sign a petition supporting the CBCP Pastoral Letter against the RH bill. She refused to sign, saying that she in fact supported the bill. A day later, unidentified persons pelted her house with raw eggs, scaring the daylights out of her children and prompting her husband to beg her to keep quiet.
This is the same game of intimidation that the Ayala Alabang barangay council is playing. They know there is no practical way to enforce the ordinance. The implications to personal privacy, medical confidentiality and human rights are simply too mind-boggling to contemplate. Still, I hope the lawyers in the village will band together to question the ordinance’s validity in court. Even from my own naïve layperson’s point of view, the ordinance has clear legal infirmities, starting with the definition of terms.
To me, the case of the Ayala Alabang ordinance clearly demonstrates the need and urgency for the RH bill now. If a mere barangay chairman can dictate an individual’s reproductive choices, then clearly a national law is needed to protect this most basic of human rights.