When I met Teresita last year, she was pregnant with her 16th child. At the time, she claimed she was 39 years old but the health workers can’t really be sure. She couldn’t present a birth certificate and on her last visit to the local health center the previous year, she said she was 36.
It’s not only her age she can’t remember accurately. She also wasn’t certain about how many pregnancies she has had. She got pregnant 16 times, she said, but her sister Arlene argued that it’s actually 17; one was aborted.
Arlene, who came with her for prenatal check-up, was also expecting. It would be her 9th baby.
I asked them if they really wanted that many children. They smiled coyly before Teresita answered, “It just happened.”
Teresita didn’t finish elementary school; she only got to second grade before dropping out. She can barely write her own name. Her sister was luckier; she reached sixth grade.
The two women live in a remote area in southern Philippines, far from the capital where a vicious debate on the reproductive health bill is being waged. The proposed law requires access to and public funding for modern family planning methods, reproductive health and sex education in schools, and improved maternal health services. It also provides for maximum public health insurance benefits for people with HIV/AIDS, breast and reproductive tract cancers, obstetric complications and other serious reproductive system illnesses.
Different sectors and groups have already weighed in on the issue. The Catholic Church has voiced its vehement opposition to the bill, contending that it would violate the sanctity of life, destroy family values and promote abortion. Economists and academicians have published position papers in support of the bill, warning of a rapid population growth that could worsen poverty and impede economic development.
The scale of contention ranges from sound articulation of arguments to preposterous name-calling. RH bill advocates are accused of being morally corrupt while anti-RH groups are charged with religious bigotry. Meanwhile, the only sound from women like Arlene and Teresita are their pained screams while giving birth.
While the religious are making it a moral issue and economists are treating it as a population issue, the reproductive health discourse is primarily an issue of rights for Arlene and Teresita. Too bad they don’t even know about it and they’re too far from the debate floor to be heard.