Filipinos Support Free Birth Control—Here’s Why They Won’t Get It

Despite a new law’s popularity, a religious minority has succeeded in cutting funds for free contraception.

A homeless woman holds her one-month-old baby on a street in Manila, Philippines. (Photo: Noel Celis/Getty Images)

Jan 20, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

When Dr. Junice Melgar found out in early January that the Philippine government had cut funding for the distribution of free contraception for women, her heart sank.

Twenty years ago, Melgar founded a family health clinic in the center of one of Manila’s biggest slums, and she has been at the forefront of a movement to provide affordable birth control and family-planning services to women in the Philippines—no small task in the largely conservative Catholic country. In 2014, the implementation of a historic reproductive health law, which was delayed after it was passed in 2012 owing to court challenges from opponents, provided for the distribution of free contraceptives. That brought Melgar and others hope that the right of women to control their lives was finally being recognized. Now she worries that those advances will be reversed.

“The budget cut is totally worrisome and cruel,” Melgar told TakePart in an interview. “I worry about the millions of women who source their supplies from government. They will run the risk of having unintended pregnancy and the possible consequences of unsafe abortion and even maternal death.”

Along with increased risk for sexually transmitted diseases, that explains why the women served by the clinic are “very mad about the budget cut,” according to Melgar.

When Melgar founded the Likhaan Family Clinic in 1995, there was an official ban on distributing contraceptives, so birth control was treated like contraband, she says. Women found to have contraception were often accosted by local officials, and their birth control was seized. Today, patients pack her small clinic to get birth control pills, condoms, injectables, and IUDs, along with information on contraceptive use and family planning.

In a country where more than half of all pregnancies are unintentional, and 90 percent of those are from a lack of birth control and access to family-planning information, clinics like Melgar’s are in high demand. According to the Reproductive Health Advocacy Network, general contraceptive use in the poor communities of Manila was close to zero in 2007, mainly because of the official ban on distributing contraceptives at health clinics like Melgar’s. But as advocacy groups began to push for reform and with the passage of the reproductive health law, that figure began to rise—it was at 42 percent in 2015.

The United Nations Population Fund says this contributed to a decrease in the maternal mortality ratio—the number of deaths per 100,000 live births—from 129 in 2013 to 114 in 2015, and a slowdown in the population growth rate, from 1.9 percent in 2010 to 1.7 percent in 2015.

As advocates point out, increased contraceptive use is also important to combat the alarming spread of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, which has been on the rise in the Philippines, especially among young people. According to the National Epidemiology Center of the Department of Health, new cases of HIV in the country rose 538 percent between 2008 and 2012. Experts at the United Nations Children’s Fund attributed the spike in HIV cases to more young people engaging in unprotected sex.

Melgar says that a majority of Filipinos supported the reproductive health law, which approved the distribution of free contraceptives, but there has been staunch resistance from Catholic groups—not surprising in a country of 100 million, 76 million of which are Catholic.

“Our problem is the minority of powerful Catholics, like the Catholic Bishops Conference and pro-life groups who continue to obstruct reproductive health and family planning even if there is already a law,” says Melgar, who suspects the budget cuts, which were decided in last-minute conference committee meetings, were the result of pressure from such groups.

At a press conference held last week in Quezon City in response to the budget cuts, advocates for the reproductive health law lashed out at the government for cutting funding for the distribution of contraceptives.

“If there are lessons from this budget cut, it is that one, we have failed to monitor the budget process in Congress,” Edcel Lagman, a former representative and the principal author of the reproductive health bill, told InterAksyon. “Two, we have rested on our laurels, and three, [reproductive health] advocates have put down their guard.”

Former health secretary Dr. Esperanza Cabral went a step further, calling those in the government who negotiated the cuts “no better than treacherous snakes with forked tongues.”

“They lie in wait for every opportunity to thwart what is now a law of the land,” Cabral told GMA News. “We hold you accountable for the hardship that millions of poor Filipino families will once again experience by depriving them of access to reproductive health services.”

Cabral and other advocates say funding the reproductive health law would need to become an electoral issue, and Cabral called on women in the Philippines to make their voices heard at the voting booth.

Melgar is hoping that, with help from various funding partners, her clinic can fill the gap in contraceptive supplies. But under the new budget, she says, government health centers will run out of supplies well before the end of the year.

“When the budget for family planning commodities are cut,” says Melgar, “the government’s program is toothless, and poor women suffer the most.”