Adolescent mothers should be relics of the past when early childbearing was the norm. But child mothers are still ubiquitous in the modern setting, not only in underdeveloped and developing countries but also in developed nations.
The UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) in 2020 reported that the “Philippines has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates among the ASEAN member states.” It documented that “more than 500 Filipino adolescent girls are getting pregnant and giving birth everyday” or in excess of 182,500 births annually.
The Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) said that “the number of children below 15 years old who had gotten pregnant has doubled in ten years”. The pandemic has aggravated the incidence of adolescent pregnancy in the Philippines where lockdowns have induced consensual intimacy and even more coerced sex involving minors. This is compounded by the difficulty of obtaining reproductive health (RH) services during the pandemic.
In 2020, a Social Welfare Stations survey revealed that Filipinos consider teenage pregnancy the “most important problem of women today”. The National Economic Development Authority and PopCom have described the teenage pregnancy situation as a “national social emergency”. Perforce, policymakers and implementers must solve this alarming emergency.
The major deleterious consequences of adolescent pregnancies impact adversely on both adolescents and the economy. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of deaths for teenagers worldwide because young girls’ bodies are not ready for pregnancy and childbirth. Moreover, babies born to teenage mothers face greater health risks.
Due to early pregnancy, young girls fail to finish basic education, lack adequate skills for remunerative work, and are economically vulnerable, thus perpetuating inter-generational poverty.
Adolescent pregnancies negatively affect the economy with a yearly average of P33-B forfeited revenues due to “lost opportunities and forgone savings” consequent to early childbearing. Most adolescent mothers remain unemployed and unproductive. The government also spends billions of pesos annually for the health care of pregnant teenagers, adolescent mothers, and their infants. Consequently, the country fails to reap the benefits of a demographic dividend from the potential of a huge young population.
The major programs and strategies to prevent adolescent pregnancies are: (1) age and development-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education; (2) access to contraceptives by adolescents; and (3) comprehensive legislation.
Countries providing RH education clearly show that accurate information on health and sexuality at the right time and appropriate age encourages responsible behavior and delays the onset of sexual activity. What is important is that information and services are accessible, accurate, and appropriate.
The beneficent outcomes of RH education are: (a) instilling correct and relevant sexual values, discarding preconceived myths on sex, and addressing young people’s curiosity, thus foreclosing risky behavior and experimentation; (b) initiation into sexual activity is delayed; (c) abstinence before marriage is encouraged; (d) life skills to counter peer pressure and resist coerced sex are acquired; (e) for the sexually active, safe sex and prevention of unintended pregnancy are achieved; (f) multiple sexual partners is avoided; and (g) transmission of HIV-AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases is prevented.
Mandatory RH education assumes more importance in the Philippines where majority of Filipino parents default in teaching their children proper sexual values because conversation about sex in most Filipino homes is taboo or the parents themselves are uninformed.
It is lamentable that eight years after the enactment of the RH Law, the Department of Education (DepEd) has not fully completed the mandated curriculum on RH education which has yet to be implemented nationwide. DepEd appears to be the graveyard of RH education.
Adolescents’ access to contraception complements RH sexuality education. Increased use of contraceptives accounts for an 86% decline in teenage pregnancy in the United States. Contraceptive use is also cost-effective. It is a small portion of the total expenditure for overall RH care and services. Contraceptive availment likewise reduces abortion rates.
Unfortunately, in the Philippines there is a stringent legal barrier to adolescents accessing modern contraceptives. The diluted compromise provision in the RH law requiring written parental consent for minors to access modern contraception, “except when the minor is already a parent or has had a miscarriage”, was further diluted by the Supreme Court in Spouses Imbong vs. Ochoa where the majority struck down the two aforesaid exceptions for purportedly eroding parental authority in the rearing of children. Consequently, without a written parental consent, no minor can access modern contraception.
In stark contrast, the US Federal Supreme Court as early as four decades ago in Carey vs. Population Services, Int’l. ruled that a 16-year-old minor’s constitutional right to privacy includes the right to freely avail of contraceptives. It also debunked for want of proof the pretension that access to contraception increases minors’ sexual indulgence.
Since there should be no idolatrous adherence to precedents, it stands to reason that Congress can depart from the aforesaid pronouncement in Imbong by legislating that parental consent is not necessary for adolescents, particularly those who are 16 years old and above, to access contraceptives because the State policy upholding the constitutional right to privacy of minors is superior to parental authority, which needs government support and intervention like in the case of defaulting parents.
There are eight bills pending in the House of Representatives on preventing adolescent pregnancy and four kindred bills in the Senate, some pending for years.
Legislating a comprehensive law on preventing adolescent pregnancy is imperative to institutionalize policies and strategies on eliminating or mitigating adolescent pregnancy, and extend social protection to adolescent mothers and their infants.
Verily, enacting a law preventing adolescent pregnancy will save young girls from the clutches of maternal death, unemployment, and poverty, and improve their future and reinforce their self-esteem.