Philippines: Abortion is illegal in this predominantly Catholic country, so more than a million women turn to other options every year

“We take huge risks if we agree to perform an abortion,” said Miriam, who uses a pseudonym to protect herself from prosecution in the Philippines. She performed four abortions on women between the ages of 23 and 48, all in secret.

Doctors and nurses caught performing abortions or providing assistance are also subject to harsh state penalties. “We risk losing our medical licenses and would also face charges in court,” Miriam said.

In the Philippines, many women seek other solutions to unwanted or non-viable pregnancies, regardless of the risks.

Lawyer Clara Rita Padilla, spokesperson for the Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network (PINSAN), said that while there are “progressive interpretations” of abortion law in the Philippines, it there are no clear exemptions to terminate a pregnancy even in serious cases such as rape and incest – or to save the life of the pregnant woman.

A study conducted by PINSAN in 2020 found that 1.26 million abortions were performed in the country, “putting the lives and health of Filipino women at risk”. And this number is expected to increase. Another study by the University of the Philippines estimated that 1.1 million abortions occur each year in the country.

Padilla said most of the women who had abortions came from poorer financial backgrounds and many were under 25. In the absence of legal services, women often turned to dangerous underground abortions performed by untrained midwives, healers and doctors in makeshift clinics. said.

“The Philippines is a product of very conservative religious beliefs. For us, the ban on abortion is already a reality, and it is women from poor families and minority groups who suffer the most.”

power of the church

Abortion rights activists in the United States greeted the Supreme Court’s decision with outrage. But for those steeped in conservative Catholic beliefs or evangelical principles, Roe’s end wasn’t just a political victory — it was a spiritual victory.
This sense of jubilation was also felt in the Philippines, where the Catholic Church wields a lot of power and influence. Local church leaders and groups who publicly condemn abortion, divorce and the use of modern contraceptives, welcomed the decision of the Supreme Court.

“The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to ban abortion is good news,” said Crispin Varquez, local bishop and prelate of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, in an interview on Radio Veritas Asia, a station run by the Quezon City-based Church.

Varquez said the move was “timely” as it coincided with the holy celebrations of the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

“(It’s) a decision informed by the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Pope Francis has described abortion as akin to “hiring a hitman” and said he respected the decision of the Supreme Court.

“It’s a human life, it’s science,” he told Reuters. “The moral question is whether it is right to take a human life to solve a problem.”

The shame that many Filipino women feel about having an abortion is often reinforced by their Catholic culture.

“The Catholic Church propagates the narrative that abortion is murder,” said Marevic Parcon, another founding member of PINSAN. Like most Filipina women, Parcon was raised Catholic. She said religion early on shaped her view of abortion. “Going to church, you were always taught to fear abortions,” she said.

“The nuns were showing us videos of late-term abortions – it was this horrible control they had over your psyche and your emotions.”

The Philippine Catholic Church and the Philippine Conference of Catholic Bishops (CBCP) did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

Pope Francis supported the US Supreme Court decision

suffer in secret

Yet, as great as the stigma is, some women — like Kristy, who also uses a pseudonym for fear of prosecution — conclude they have no choice but to seek out clandestine or illegal abortions.

The mother-of-four hid her abortion from her husband and family because she knew ‘they would never allow it’.

“They would just force me to keep the baby and we are already struggling to feed our four children,” she said. “How can we afford to raise a fifth?”

She has not taken any form of contraception and her husband does not use condoms. Access to other forms of contraception like birth control pills and intrauterine devices was also out of the question. “I can’t imagine how much it would cost,” she said. “I wouldn’t know how (to) get them or use them.”

So when she became pregnant, she sought the services of a midwife and paid her 550 pesos ($10) for a “healing massage”.

She described being held down by the midwife’s assistant as she went to work, kneading and pounding her lower abdomen, which ultimately triggered a miscarriage. “It was messy and so awful,” Kristy said. “The pain was so excruciating and I could only scream. I still have trouble sleeping.”

“I feel so much guilt but I know my family is better off for it,” she added.

An anti-abortion poster on the sides of a building in Manila.

Time to change?

Opponents say it’s time for the Philippines to get rid of the “inhumane provisions” of its abortion law and finally decriminalize abortion to save women’s lives.

“These regulations have only led to a silent epidemic of unsafe abortions that have claimed the lives of so many Filipino women,” said Senator Risa Hontiveros, new leader of the opposition. “Nor should we send women to prison after such difficult and painful experiences.”

The practice of unsafe underground abortions must end, Hontiveros said. She also reiterated the importance of destigmatizing abortion as a national step for the country.

“Women must vigilantly protect our rights and freedoms, especially amid the rise of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in many countries around the world,” Hontiveros said. “I fully support the move to decriminalize abortion under Philippine law.”

In an interview earlier in January, then-presidential hopeful Ferdinand Marcos Jr. shared his views on abortion and said he would legalize it for “serious cases.”

“I think if it can be shown that (the victims) were raped and it wasn’t consensual sex that got them pregnant, they should have a choice whether or not to have an abortion. The other is maybe -be incest,” said Marcos Jr. – who has since been elected president.

He also said he was “more concerned about deaths caused by unsafe abortions” than opposition from church leaders. “It’s a woman’s decision because it’s her body.”

Lawyers and lawmakers have hailed her liberal stance toward abortion. “Restricting abortion doesn’t stop it, it actually makes it more dangerous and we’ve seen that play out across the world,” PINSAN’s Parcon said.

“Marcos raised it during his election campaign and for us it was the furthest we’ve come so far, and if he says he will make it a priority then we have to hold him to account. ”

Senator Hontiveros said she welcomes the new president’s “openness” to supporting changes to the Philippines’ abortion laws.

“It gives hope that we can soon decriminalize abortion and reform our laws to take into account the realities faced by Filipino women and families,” she said.

“However, I’m waiting to see if her words reflect a real commitment to defending women’s rights. For the sake of Filipina women everywhere, I hope they do.”

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