A Faith Perspective On Reproductive Health And Rights

by Ms. Darlene Marquez-Caramanzana
Program Secretary, Program Unit on Ecumenical Education and Nurture
National Council of Churches in the Philippines

Jesus in the New Testament was often seen and heard to be proclaiming and granting wholeness to people. This, he did when he healed many women suffering from various kinds of infirmity and diseases.

In Luke 8:40-55, we witnessed a “woman in desperation owing to a health issue” (Ball, David). Now, notice that preceding the story of the woman who was bleeding is another story - The one that tells about Jairus’ daughter who was also sick and dying.

The girl was 12 years old. “Age twelve is a pivotal age in a young woman’s sexual development, so the fact that the older woman had been bleeding for that time (12 years) can be read as a hint that her bleeding is sexual. Blood meant life in their culture, so her life has been seeping away” (McIntosh)” at the time of her encounter with Jesus.A major theme in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament is the Hebrew concept of Shalom. Many will ascribe to “peace” as the meaning of Shalom.

But our ecumenical understanding of Shalom goes beyond the present meanings that many of us have when we say peace. Shalom to us, in the ecumenical community means wholeness. A state of life where everything that is needed and is due to the people are given and enjoyed by the people.

Isaiah 57:18-19 speaks well of a kind of life that constitutes Shalom: a life of health and well-being. Yahweh’s statement of “I will heal my people” points to the fact of a divine undertaking that freedom from structural oppression also frees people from sickness and enables them to live in a state of wellness and wholeness.

“Shalom involves harmony of economic, social and political life such as in freeing of a people in Exodus. So there is no Shalom where the resources of the community are distributed inequitably so that some eat and others go hungry. . .” (Camba, 2008)

Our understanding of Shalom then poses a big challenge to the different institutions of our society when we speak of sexual and reproductive rights and health. We can only surmise that when Jesus, proclaimed and affirmed wholeness in each woman whom he encountered, he was in fact acting on the basis of an Old Testament concept and vision of promoting Shalom among people, especially the poorest of the poor.

There is a subversion in the story. Notice that in this specific story of the bleeding woman, it was the woman, not Jesus, who reached out and sought for healing and wholeness. Jesus only took notice of the woman when he felt that power came out from him.

Needless to say, “kailangan pa syang hawakan ng patalikod ng babae bago pa nya ito gawaran ng kagalingan”.

The woman’s health was restored because she asserted and persevered for it. Despite her condition, she walked hard through the crowd so that healing can be hers. With health having just 32.43% share in the national budget, and with an allocation of just .96 for each Filipino everyday, many of our women are bleeding and have bled to death.

The comprehensive reproductive health bill should not be subjected to political bickering and religious debates. It should and MUST be handed to women as a rightful recognition of their right to live in dignity and state of well-being. It must be given to women, majority of whom are poor, so that at least, the government can save face in its long standing record of incapacity to serve the interest of its people.

Sad to say that the RH debate had been centered on faces and images of middle class women and personalities who can afford health care and who have easy access to medical attention. When you hear of RH, think of women, POOR women who have long been denied access even to the most basic medical services that they need.

Today, we are not only dealing with maternal deaths, prenatal and post natal complications, neonatal, infant and child death, and or contraceptives, we are also dealing with breast cancer, cervical cancer, and other diseases that puts additional burden on the already broken shoulders of our poor women. We have long been witnesses to the desecration of women’s bodies.

Such had been a negation to the Divine will of Shalom or wholeness to people’s lives, especially women. Desecration is not only in the form of violence against women – physical, emotional, mental, verbal and sexual. Desecration of women’s bodies happen at different level and degrees: talk about women being forced by multi-national companies to subscribe to their own standards and brands of beauty, talk about women suffering from breast cancer, cervical cancer, skin cancer, talk about women being forced to undergo surgeries so that their breasts, hips, noses, eyebags and others are shaped into what is prescribed by doctors and companies that produce millions out of it, talk about the cosmetics industry that continues to flourish at the expense of women especially the young and professional women.

A far graver concern would be the inability of poor women to be checked and treated even if for simple and curable diseases. Much more, die from it. It becomes totally meaningless and problematic when women’s right to claim, decide and own their bodies is subjected to the dogmas, impositions and manipulation of some sections and institutions of our society.

There is also a need that the sacred bodies of women are protected from the impositions and policies of imperialist countries and multi-national companies who have the desire to make billions of profits out of it. We have to be vigilant in our struggle for full legislation of RH bill because we do not want that such policies will further “impose significant costs on women and constrain their options. ” (Sen, Gita, and Snow, Rachel, 1994).

Poor women are pushing for the legislation of the bill not because they are hoping that medical access and services shall be theirs in the wink of an eye but because they want to engage the state in pushing it to fulfill its mandate of serving the interest of the greater masses who are now dying because of its failure to fulfill its duty. Such act gives a semblance of the Story of the Woman who had been bleeding for twelve long years. Pushing and persevering even in the midst of profuse bleeding - just so that life abundant may be realized is the image of today’s poor and struggling Filipino women. Reproductive health and rights have long been recognized internationally.

“The right to control one’s own body – whether to protect its integrity or to enjoy its pleasures – is the most basic of all rights. If we lack the possibility to prevent our bodies from being violated by others, and if we are denied the opportunity to protect ourselves from pregnancy or disease, then how can we take part in or claim any of the other benefits of development? ” (Cornwall, Andrea and Jolly, Susie, 2006)

Such assertion clearly explains the role of recognizing women’s right to control one’s body as essential to any path of development. But such assertion has almost always been put into the sidelines because especially in the Philippine context, the right of women to their own bodies is undeniably not acceptable. But let me also clarify, that when I speak of women’s rights to their own bodies, I do speak of a right that is practiced responsibly. Unfortunately, today, when we say women’s bodies, it’s not women’s voices that we hear speaking about it.

Whom do we hear when we speak of women’s bodies? The capitalist-patriarchal ideology is very much at work in each and every aspect of women’s lives. It permeated every recesses of women’s lives and being making them feel incomplete, imperfect and always lacking of something. It thrives on women’s bodies.

Alienating women from their own selves and hating themselves for not being attuned with what capitalist-patriarchal ideology has been promoting as the true measure of beauty - making them feel the need to always need something, crave for something and compete with someone for something.

Women’s bodies have become repositories of products that rakes millions and billions of profits for the capitalist master. Women’s beauty has been the stepping stool to which male structures and systems of power continue to dominate and rule. Women have to be beautiful for men and for profit. Women have to compete with and be isolated from one another because of the “divide and rule” tactic of the capitalists which was the same strategy used by imperial powers in colonizing weaker and smaller nations.

For a long time, institutions within the society, like the church, have taught us that our bodies are “sinful” and should only be given honor when the “prince charming” of our lives will finally come to live with us happily ever after. We were not even allowed to touch ourselves. We were denied of our own sexuality and sensuality. We were denied the right to appreciate and be connected with our own body rhythm and cycles. Women are always taught that being beautiful is all that matters.

Everyday and every minute of our lives we are bombarded with different messages of the need to engage in diet programs because being fat means ugly and undisciplined, the need to have white and fairer skin so that men will be attracted to us, the need to have long straight hair because only indigenous and uncivilized people have curly hairs, the need to buy and use designer clothes, bags, accessories to be in and fashionable, the need to wear these brand of make ups so as to look radiant and fresh, the need to always feel and look young because aging is a disease, the need to use this detergent bar so that despite truck load of laundry, our hands will remain smooth and our husband will be more than willing to hold our hands, and the list goes on .

There is so much to celebrate about women’s bodies and sexuality. Affirming one’s uniqueness: color, height, weight, hair, nose, eyes, even our unique curves, will lead to appreciation and development of one’s full potential and genuine humanness. We are gathered here today because of our collective affirmation that a comprehensive reproductive health bill would contribute to the upholding of women’s rights.It’s a long way to freedom, so they say.

But a step has been taken already, it is our sacred duty as members of the faith community to render our unwavering support in upholding the rights and welfare of women.What does the United Methodist Church say about Reproductive Health?

The General Board of Church and Society, in particular, states that “The United Methodist Church supports the right for men and women worldwide to have the ability to choose when, or if, to have children. Affirming the right of women to access comprehensive health care services, including reproductive health, has always been a cornerstone of the UMC.” (GBCS)

The Social Principles, are affirmative of some provisions of the present Comprehensive RH Bill, particularly in the following sections:Paragraph 161 F (human sexuality) which states that “we recognize the continuing for full, positive, age-appropriate and factual sex education for children, young adults and adults. (This affirms the provision on Age-Appropriate Sex Education for Children.)

Paragraph 161 J (abortion) which states that “our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, from whom devastating damage may result from unacceptable pregnancy. . . . we cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control . . .” (this affirms the provision on abortion.)Paragraph 161 K (ministry to those who have experienced abortion) – (supportive of the provision on post abortion counseling and care.)

Paragraph 162 F (rights of women) which states that “ we affirm the right of women to live free from violence and abuse and urge governments to enact policies that protect women against all forms of violence and discrimination in any sector of society.” (underscoring mine) (supportive of enacting policies that uphold the rights of women.)

Closing

The journey to Shalom, as they always say, is long and arduous. Shalom for poor, Filipino women will remain elusive even if we are able to pass the bill on Reproductive Health. We are not saying that the passage of the bill will already be “heaven” to Filipino women. This is only one part of the many on-going struggles of women in defending their life and dignity. Nevertheless, it will be another victory for the women’s movement in the Philippines if the bill will be legislated.

Like the bleeding woman, Filipino women are not just sitting and waiting for their rights to be realized. They are standing, with clenched fists and ever militant spirits, actively fighting and claiming their rightful space until such time that Shalom will be realized not just for them but for all. By: Ms. Darlene Marquez-CaramanzanaNational Council of Churches in the Philippines
_____________________________________________________________________

References

Camba, E. (2008). A Bible Study on Justice and Peace. Micah's Call: Affirming Economic Justice for Peace , 13.

Cornwall, Andrea and Jolly, Susie. (2006). Introduction: Sexuality Matters.GBCS. Retrieved from www.umc-gbcs.org.

McInstosh, A. A Short Course on Liberation Theology.

Sen, Gita, and Snow, Rachel. (1994). POWER AND DECISION The Social Control of Reproduction. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.