In an effort to resolve my existential crisis and discover what I’m truly passionate about, I’ve been volunteering for a wonderful NGO called Likhaan, a strong advocate of the RH Bill and a provider of reproductive health clinics at urban poor communities. On Wednesday, I attended the screening of a heart-wrenching documentary they produced with the Guttmacher Institute. Called Agaw-Buhay (Fighting for Life), the 26-minute documentary recounts the tale of four women whose circumstances forced them to seek an illegal abortion or suffered the fatal consequences of unsafe abortion.
Thanks to the strong influence of the Catholic church in Filipino life and culture, intentional and unintentional abortions are considered illegal by the Revised Penal Code and Constitution. If caught, women who go through abortions and physicians/midwives who perform abortions can face light to medium prison sentences. Despite these strict laws, there are hundreds and thousands of illegal abortions performed in the Philippines each year, and these abortions are performed through unsafe methods that can injure or cause major complications. Data from Likhaan reveals that in 2008, there was an estimated number of 560,000 abortions. 90,000 were hospitalized due to complications and 1,000 died for lack of care.
Since 85% of Filipinos are Catholic and the ban behind abortion rests upon Catholic dogma, the very subject of abortion is loaded with stigma and cannot be discussed without being judged (if you are for it) and judging harshly (if you are against it). The Catholic private schools I attended from grade school until college all taught me that abortion is a sin as grave as murder. We were taught to condemn women who get abortions – they’re selfish, immoral, and going straight to hell for being babykillers (and for having premarital sex to boot, those promiscuous girls).
Statistics actually paint a very different picture of the kind of woman who seek an abortion. On average, they are just like any Filipino woman of reproductive age – they are Catholic, married, poor, have had at least a high school education, and have 3 or more children. They also come from various rungs of the social ladder and share the same reasons for wanting an abortion – the economic cost of raising children, too many children, health concerns, mistimed pregnancy, spouse did not welcome the pregnancy, spouse is not a good father, pregnancy resulted from rape.
Likhaan gave everyone a copy of Agaw-Buhay to share with our friends and respective organizations, and the entire video is available on YouTube. Since I don’t have the time (or venue) to hold a physical screening of the documentary, consider this post as a virtual film showing of Agaw-Buhay. In here, you’ll encounter four of the half a million Filipino women who sought an illegal abortion and were forced to pay the price: a living hell filled with pain, social stigma, and medical complications caused by these unsafe practices.
What I like about this film is that it makes no judgments and no real call to action. Instead, it asks the viewer to take a look at the reality of unsafe abortion and reflect about the issue in ways they’ve never done before. For instance, it was interesting to note that the decision to get an abortion is not influenced by the Western feminist desire to “reclaim the body” or assert one’s right over one’s body. Rather, it’s a decision that arises out of circumstance and sometimes, sheer desperation. It also never occurred to me that the stigmatization of abortion compromises the quality of care provided by doctors and health workers to women suffering from post-abortion complications. Medical ethics state that a doctor must do no harm to a patient (non-maleficence) and do only what is good for the patience (beneficence). But when confronted by a woman in need of an abortion/post-abortion care, the health worker’s line of thinking suddenly become, “Is this illegal? Will the hospital get sued if we help her? Will I get arrested for helping her?”
After seeing the documentary, I hope you take some time to think about the ideas and stories it presents. Here are a few guide questions that can help you with your reflection, courtesy of Likhaan. I’d also love to know what you think or hear your own story. Feel free to leave a(n anonymous) comment, but I’ll be moderating the discussion and won’t be approving those that generate hate or judgment.