Star Science
The Philippine Star, 22 September 2011

While the Reproductive Health (RH) bill failed to make the hurdle during previous session of the 14th Congress, it seems to be making some headway in the current Congress owing to a more favorable disposition of the new national leadership. Still, public debate remains heated. It’s time to take stock of the arguments contra and pro RH (or Responsible Parenthood) bill.

Those opposed to the Bill assert that the Philippines does not have a population problem and that the focus of public policy should instead be on the corruption problem. They argue that a large population resulting from rapid population growth is, in fact, good for the economy. They add that attempts to slow population growth are ill-advised as they would only hasten the onset of the “demographic winter” or the problem of ageing currently experienced by the advanced countries in Europe. Moreover, the Catholic Church hierarchy and conservative religious groups assert that the RH bill is pro-abortion and is thus anti-life. This is because, in their view, modern contraceptives – which the RH bill proposes to make available along with the traditional methods (including “natural family planning”) – are abortifacient.

Those in favor of the Bill cite the conventional argument that slower population growth facilitates economic growth, poverty reduction, and preservation of the environment, as clearly shown by the experience of the other East and Southeast Asian countries. Economic growth is facilitated by higher private and public savings – owing to slower growth of the youth dependents – required for investment in human capital (i.e., spending on education and health per person) and infrastructure. Slower population growth combined with faster economic growth  leads to significant poverty reduction, human development, and lower inequality. And slower population growth lessens the stress on the environment.

Furthermore, the pro-RH bill advocates invoke household survey data showing that women – poor women in particular – are having more children than they want and can adequately provide for. Poor women are unable to achieve their desired number of children due to lack of access to affordable modern and effective family planning methods. Unintended or mistimed pregnancies result in most of about 560,000 induced and illegal abortions annually, such that improved access to modern and effective contraceptive methods could substantially reduce such illegal abortions. This implies that, contrary to the claim of the opposers, the RH bill is in fact anti-abortion and is pro-life. Indeed, the Bill expressly prohibits abortion.

The argument of those who oppose the Bill that there is no population problem is borne out neither by serious empirical research nor by public opinion surveys. While rapid population growth may not be considered the main cause of the country’s economic backwardness, it is among the major factors contributing to the problem. True, corruption is probably the country’s primordial challenge but it cannot be the sole focus of the country’s development effort. Corruption in varying degrees has also plagued many of our Asian neighbors but they have managed to achieve economic dynamism nonetheless, with sound population policy complementing reasonable economic policies.

Moreover, the argument that a large population resulting from rapid growth is good for the economy is starkly contra factum (i.e., without factual basis). If, indeed, that were true, the Philippines, whose population (along with Nepal’s and Pakistan’s) has been growing the fastest in Asia should have the most prosperous economy and with minimal poverty. Alas, these three countries are the region’s spectacularly laggard economies.

The fear of a “demographic winter” seems highly exaggerated. Simple demographic analysis would show that, if the average number of children per woman (currently 3.3 children) drops to the replacement level of 2.1 (expected to occur by 2035-2040), it would take another 60 years or so before Philippine population ceases to grow, by which time population could total about 178 million under a “business as usual scenario”. To illustrate, while South Korea, China and Thailand had reached the 2.1 fertility replacement level prior to or in the 1990s, they continue to grow owing to ‘demographic momentum’ (i.e., large numbers of couples entering or already in their reproductive ages). And, certainly, these countries will have the resources and be better prepared to deal with problems associated with ageing.

The assertion that the RH bill is pro-abortion and anti-life is an opinion that cannot be imposed as dogma. In fact, there is no unanimity – not even among theologians – on the question of when life does begin. The official view of the World Health Organization is that pregnancy starts after, not before, the fertilized ovum settles down in the uterus to become viable.  Contraceptives (condoms, pills, and IUDs), by definition – and in fact – prevent ovulation and/or fertilization. Hence, they cannot be regarded as abortifacient or anti-life. [See the recent Medical Experts’ Declaration on Contraceptives (September 2011)].

So, what’s the score on the RH debate? It appears that the arguments contra are largely assertions based on ideology rather than on empirical research. Gratis asseritur, gratis negatur (“What is freely asserted can be freely denied”). By contrast, the arguments pro appear anchored on empirical studies and further consistently supported by inter-temporal public opinion surveys.

The population issue is long dead and buried in developed and most developing countries, including historically Catholic countries. If the government abides by the age-old dictum Salus populi suprema lex (“The welfare of the people is the supreme law”), it cannot continue to play blind to the merits of the RH bill just to accommodate the demands of the conservative religious groups. Such an accommodation largely explains why the Bill continues to be debated and hang in the balance in Congress.

The passage or non-passage of the Bill will significantly affect people’s lives one way or the other. Based on reliable public opinion surveys, it will matter to people how their elected representatives vote on the Bill, as it seems to have mattered to the outcome of the 2010 elections.