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(Presentation of Rep. Edcel C. Lagman at the Side Event Activity in the United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) Midterm Review of the Asian and Pacific Ministerial Declaration on Population and Development in Bangkok, Thailand on 27 November 2018)

In September 1994, 179 governments, including the Philippines, adopted the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. Almost a quarter of a century later, the ICPD is still the enviable template on reproductive health and rights, family planning and the linkage between population and development.

Twenty four years ago, the ICPD action plan was but a whisper of a promise, a newly planted seed that RH and women’s health advocates hoped would be nurtured and cultivated by legislative champions and blossom into a meaningful domestic legislations that would reduce maternal and infant morbidity and mortality through correct and consistent use of contraceptives; promote freedom of informed choice and responsible parenthood; and empower women to take full charge of a fundamental aspect of womanhood – when and how often a woman would want to become a mother, if she so chooses to become one.

Today, it is a reality as embodied in the Philippine Reproductive Health Law or Republic Act 10354.

The passage of a RH Law was the elusive prize – the ultimate reward – for advocates of family planning and women’s health and rights, as well as for progressive and enlightened legislators. Verily, ICPD’s policy prescriptions can only be realized through the implementation of positive legislation.

From a legislative perspective, ICPD truly works because it is a solid and reliable framework within which to build a law that truly responds to the needs of women even as it encourages governments to fulfill their mandate to promote and protect the rights and ensure the well being of their citizens.

ICPD’s Programme of Action provides clear guidelines on RH, population and development. It was our unfailing compass as we navigated unchartered and treacherous waters to steer the RH bill into law.

Unchartered because never before has the Philippine Congress tackled a measure so controversial as it purportedly trespassed into the bedrooms of couples. The struggle was long, difficult and so divisive that the RH bill took almost 14 years, five Congresses and hundreds of hours of committee meetings and plenary debates to enact.

Treacherous because the influential Catholic Church in the country launched an all-out war against the RH bill and pro-RH lawmakers were demonized in the halls of Congress and Church pulpits, threatened with excommunication and defeat at the polls.

If the RH Law is a strong and progressive statute, it is because it has ICPD as its backbone. The ICPD unequivocally states that women should be at the center of reproductive health and development efforts and places emphasis on human rights, sustainable human development, gender equality, gender equity, non-discrimination and women’s health and sexual rights, and women empowerment as cornerstones of population policies even as national legislation, culture and religious values are respected.

All these are echoed in the Declaration of Policy of the RH Law, which maintains that:

The State recognizes and guarantees the human rights of all persons including their right to equality and nondiscrimination of these rights, the right to sustainable human development, the right to health … , and the right to choose and make decisions for themselves in accordance with their religious convictions, ethics, cultural beliefs, and the demands of responsible parenthood.”

                  x x x           x x x           x x x

“Moreover, the State recognizes and guarantees the promotion of gender equality, gender equity, women empowerment ... The advancement and protection of women’s human rights shall be central to the efforts of the State to address reproductive health care.”

Key principles in the Programme of Action are enshrined in various sections of the RH Law such as sustainable human development, gender equity and equality democratic trends and dividends, partnership with non-government sector, addressing maternal and child mortality and morbidity, hiring of skilled health professionals for maternal health care and skilled birth attendance, maternal death review and fetal and infant death review, reproductive rights of adolescents, age and development appropriate reproductive health education, male participation in reproductive health, and ensuring the reproductive health of persons with disabilities.

The ICPD Programme of Action is a bold and realistic treatise on how governments, especially those in the developing world, can help curb a ballooning population by simply helping women and couples realize their fertility goals. And this is exactly what RA 10354 aims to accomplish - help ensure that women and couples will achieve their desired fertility through the creation of an enabling environment where they can make informed reproductive health choices.

ICPD also works for the enactment of legislation because it is backed by research. Lawmaking must be anchored on reliable facts and lawmakers are more easily convinced to support a measure that is buttressed by research that can be empirically verified.

For the first time, it was underscored that reproductive health and family planning must first and foremost be rights-based, health-oriented, and development-driven. Fundamental to this novel principle was the certainty that giving women the right to reproductive self-determination will greatly improve individual health and rights because it will afford women sovereignty over their own bodies, which in turn would eventually lead to lower fertility rates and marked reductions in population growth.

Cairo was unprecedented because it showed that population control policies must evolve and place the health and rights of women at the heart of population programs, over bare population deceleration policy without regard to rights, health and development.

In response to the call of ICPD, Sec. 3 (l) of the RH Law explicitly provides that: “There shall be no demographic or population targets and the mitigation, promotion and/or stabilization of the population growth rate is incidental to the advancement of reproductive health.” Freedom of informed choice is central to the RH law.

ICPD works because it proves that investing on women’s reproductive health and rights is a cost-effective approach to human development and by investing in RH services and allocating funds for contraceptives, governments will: (1) realize savings on medical care for pregnant women and infants; (2) significantly reduce unplanned pregnancies and help women meet their fertility targets, thus freeing up household funds that can be invested in education and healthcare of children; and (3) avoid larger expenditures for health services related to pregnancy and abortion complications, not to mention the gargantuan financial burden on governments of a ballooning population.

The RH Law aims to improve lives and change the course of the future for countless women and children – women who will be freed from the burden of unremitting pregnancies and who can now have the opportunity of finishing their studies or finding remunerative work; and children who are ensured better health prospects due to planned and spaced pregnancies, who will be better cared for because there will be less children competing for their parents’ time and the family’s resources, and who will have improved educational opportunities and healthcare because government can now allocate more funds to these social services as Filipino women meet their fertility goals and population growth rates go down.

Cleary, from a legislative standpoint ICPD works and remains a bright star in the constellation of international declarations, covenants and conventions on women’s reproductive health and rights, sustainable human development, gender equality and social justice.