How the Philippines' New Abortion Law Represents the Global Struggle of the Catholic Church

Filming 'Year of Mercy', our new documentary about the Philippines' underground abortion trade, it became increasingly clear that Catholicism is at a crossroads.

25 February 2016, 6:00am

The author in an orphanage in the Philippines

There was once a time in my life where faith offered me huge comfort. I prayed when my dad was ill and I prayed just as hard for forgiveness right after I shoplifted a bath-bomb from Superdrug. That feeling has dwindled into non-existence, but been replaced by unease at the policing of other people's faiths – Reddit atheists launching spectacularly unfunny attacks on the religious, or Ricky Gervais belittling believers from his iPhone.

I've never felt that sense of unease more intensely than when I became the awkward, lumbering guest of a teenage mum in Manila, in the four-by-four-foot room where she lived with her baby, boyfriend and several other family members.

We were in the Philippines to make a documentary about the underground abortion trade – a procedure forced underground because of the country's devout Catholicism – and were filming with this young woman, who hadn't heard of contraception until she became pregnant. Because of this lack of sexual education, she now had a child to care for and was no longer able to study or find a job. None of the hot takes I had ready about abortion rights could prepare me for what I was supposed to be doing: challenging someone whose faith was trapping her in poverty, but also providing an immeasurable amount of solace.

We started working on the film shortly after the Philippines passed the Reproductive Health Law, which, after a decade-long battle, promised to provide the country with sex education, maternal care and universal access to contraceptives.

The inevitable filibustering of the law had included one opposition senator proclaiming that jerking off was "genocide". In retaliation, another demanded that Filipina women needed "satisfying sex", which could only be achieved with easy access to contraceptives. As colourful as the debates were, the bill's limp into law turned what should have been a moment of celebration for the Philippines into a reminder of the country's failings in reproductive health – not least its punitive abortion law and the proliferation of backstreet abortions which underpin it.

While South-East Asia has a notoriously bleak reputation for access to safe abortions, the Philippines – the only predominantly Catholic country in the region – has long coupled this with tales of abject desperation. There have been reports of aborted foetuses being wrapped in plastic bags and volleyed into church courtyards or left in confessional booths, in a frantic attempt from the mothers to absolve themselves of sin. They are stories that are as absurd as they are heart-breaking, and they happen with alarming regularity.

However, last September, Pope Francis declared that 2016 would be a "Year of Mercy", where the power to absolve women who'd had abortions would be extended to all bishops. The declaration was in keeping with his comparatively progressive reign so far; one that continues to terrify conservative Catholics as he continues to break Pope-protocol, ditching the papal Prada shoes and instead posting tweets about environmentalism.

In fact, just six months into his papacy he thrilled the press and highlighted serious fractures within the Vatican, as he said the church had become "obsessed" with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. So while Francis is not exactly flinging open the faith's doors to "sinners", his attempts to decentralise the church and become the "Pope of the People" shows the quandary Catholicism is in today – where a fear of progression is at odds with the reality that, without modernisation, Catholicism will continue its slow but steady decline.

Nowhere is this more marked than in the Philippines, where devotion is at constant loggerheads with the state's desire to modernise. A stronghold of the faith, the Pope's 2015 visit to Manila ended with 6 million Filipinos attending his final mass, making it the largest ever event in papal history. However, this mammoth display of piety runs parallel to an increased softening in Filipino Catholicism. Over 72 percent of the public were in favour of the Reproductive Health Law, and when members of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines attacked the law, some members of local dioceses quietly opposed them, hinting at a battle between church officials behind closed doors.

This is a conflict within the church pointed out to us, with some relief, by Dr Junice Melgar of Likhaan, a crucial NGO run from Manila that provides contraceptives and direct healthcare services to the most marginalised Filipina women.

Dr Junice was personally targeted by Filipino pro-lifers, who sent her death threats and painted her as a kind of Dr Robotnik-level end boss who had to be overcome in the fight to save Catholicism. Despite all this, she was instrumental in pushing the law into effect. Her long-term fight, of course, is for the Philippines to legalise abortion completely, and her line of argument on the matter is blunt: abortions are a health necessity.

READ ON BROADLY: Why You Can Still Get Sent to Jail for Having an Abortion in the UK

It's a debate that has taken centre stage in international news recently, as the Zika virus continues to work its way through Latin America – a continent whose many countries largely have the same kind of punitive abortion laws as the Philippines. Laws that often don't allow for life-saving abortions, or abortion in cases of rape or incest.

In Brazil, where the Zika outbreak started, the government has been subject to international pressure – from the United Nations, alongside other organisations – to liberalise its law in a bid to help contain the virus. But a combination of an outspoken evangelical caucus in Brazil – again, like the Philippines – and a public not yet ready to talk about abortion, even as a health necessity, shuts down the conversation.

This is where Pope Francis' jamboree of progressiveness has hit a snag. In the wake of Zika, local bishops were left to flounder, offering contradictory advice while both the Vatican and the Pope remained silent as the virus swept through these Catholic countries. That is, until last week, when Pope Francis cleared up his views on the matter, arguing that even therapeutic abortion is "what the Mafia does... a crime, an absolute evil".

Though Pope Francis' 12-month forgiveness shindig is unravelling fast, it has at least provided vindication to the Philippines' growing pro-choice campaigners to enlist one of the most powerful virtues of Catholicism. That is: to have compassion for one another, no matter what the perceived transgression. To have mercy on those who need it most.


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