BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The Philippines Supreme Court began hearing a last-ditch attempt to block the controversial, long-awaited Reproductive Health Law on Tuesday, and an international health charity said the law could save lives and should come into force immediately.
“In the Philippines we lose 14 to 15 mothers a day due to pregnancy-related complications, but with this law we are closer than ever before to being able to provide a low-cost solution which will directly save the lives of women and their babies,” Karen Culver, country director for Merlin in the Philippines, said in a statement.
“We cannot afford to deny women this choice when every two minutes, a woman dies somewhere in the world as a result of pregnancy or childbirth,” she added.
The Philippines Congress passed the RH bill , which requires authorities down to village level to provide free or low-cost reproductive health services, in December, ending some 13 years of debate on what proponents see as a human rights issue but bishops of the influential Roman Catholic Church oppose on religious grounds.
Rights groups and medical charities applauded the passage of the legislation, but in March the high court issued an order delaying implementation of the law for 120 days in response to a petition from pro-life campaigners. The law was supposed to take effect on March 30.
The law will not promote abortion, which is illegal in the Philippines, a deeply religious country where around 80 percent of the people are Catholic Christians.
According to Merlin and its national partner Likhaan, maternal mortality rates in the Philippines rose sharply to 221 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2011 from 162 in 2009.
MILESTONE FOR PHILIPPINES
Opponents of the law are trying to persuade the Supreme Court that it is unconstitutional but its supporters deny this and say the day it takes effect will mark a big advance for women’s rights in the country.
“The law would be a milestone in terms of women’s sexual and reproductive health (in the Philippines),” Culver told Thomson Reuters Foundation via e-mail.
The law’s key achievements include mandatory government funding for reproductive health services and ensuring that all public health facilities provide a full range of family planning methods, she said. It makes it an offence to restrict reproductive health services.
“Post-abortion care will also be made legal for the first time, and there will be penalties for health providers who refuse to treat or handle cases simply because they are against abortion,” Culver said.
Reproductive health education would be added to the public school curriculum for those aged 10-19 for the first time, which Culver said is “crucial in a country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Asia-Pacific region”.
It also has provision for increasing the number of skilled professionals attending births, establishing and upgrading facilities for emergency obstetric and neonatal care, and for providing national health insurance benefits to those with life-threatening conditions such as HIV/AIDS or obstetric complications.