Abortion is on my mind. Today an 18 year old came into our office, worried that she might be pregnant. Her boyfriend had raped her last month. It was their first time to have sex. She broke up with him after he raped her but constantly worried that she might get pregnant. That fear was realized when we gave her a pregnancy test this morning and it was positive.
She immediately started crying and asked us if we could help with an abortion. We told her that we could only help people prevent unplanned pregnancies before the fact. Now, all we can do is to provide her with prenatal vitamins and prenatal care throughout her pregnancy.
The Philippines is a majority-Catholic country with conservative social laws. Abortion is illegal in any and all cases, even when it is to save a woman’s life. Despite being against the law, according to research by US think tank the Guttmacher Institute, an estimated 500,000 women have abortions in the Philippines each year. Because abortion is illegal, medical professionals do not carry it out, so it is unsafe. As a result, an estimated 1,000 women die of abortion-complications each year.
Abortion is often seen as a “Western” thing, but surprisingly it is quite common in Asia and the Middle East. In countries like Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Singapore and Vietnam, abortion is legal. In other countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, East Timor (the only other Catholic country in Asia!), Iran, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Thailand, it is legal in order to save the life of a woman. The only countries in Asia and the Middle East that prohibit abortion without any exception even to save a mother’s life are Iraq, Laos and the Philippines.
The Philippines is 86% Catholic, 8% other Christian denominations, and 5% Muslim (although percentages vary depending on whether one is looking at census data or other survey data). That is up to 99% of the entire population affiliating with a religious belief that generally prohibits abortion. It will come as no surprise then that views on abortion in this country are extremely negative. Most people view life as starting at in the womb and view abortion as killing a person.
I don’t think abortion will ever become legal or widely accepted in the Philippines, but I think it is time that the Philippines allow exceptions in certain situations, such as if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother.
I work with women in resource-poor communities and I can tell you that women bear the brunt of caring for children and families. When a decision is made to save the life of an unborn baby over the life of his or her mother, the outcome for the baby is not usually good. Often both the mother and her baby end up perishing. Filipino couples often have multiple children so if a decision is made to save the life of an unborn baby over the life of his or her mother, multiple children lose their mother, and a father loses his life partner.
My husband and I both love our children more than we ever could have imagined but when we think hypothetically about what we would do if I was pregnant and had a complication and were faced with whether to save me or our unborn baby, we both would want to save me. We would both mourn the unborn baby but would want to be able to continue life together. We wouldn’t want to deprive our existing children of their mother.
I can’t stop thinking about the 18 year old. We gave her a prenatal check up and a supportive environment in which to ask questions and talk about her situation. We warned her that if she goes to a traditional healer or manghihilot for an abortion that she would also be putting her own life at risk. I think she is still in shock and processing her new reality. She told us her friends would help her find a way to abort the baby if she decides to do that. I fear for what could happen to her, and her baby if she goes down this route. We’ve had clients who attempted abortions which did not work, but caused considerable birth defects to their babies, who now face life with serious disabilities. It is all so heartbreaking.
In a previous fellowship I was asked what my driving force is for the work that I do. I answered that my driving force is to have every pregnancy be wanted and planned. We are such a long way from this in the Philippines.