Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an executive order to provide free access to contraceptives for 6 million women in an effort to reduce poverty, the Department of Health Commission on Population announced in a press release Wednesday.
According to the executive order, which was signed on Monday, a national survey found that at least 6 million women in the Philippines lack access to contraceptives, of which 2 million are poor. The order calls for an intensified push to achieve “zero unmet need for modern family planning” for the 2 million poor women by 2018 and the rest thereafter.
Universal access to birth control and sex education is actually part of Duterte’s 10-Point Socio-Economic Agenda. The government aims to cut the poverty rate from 21.6 percent in 2015 to 13 percent or 14 percent by the end of Duterte’s term in 2022, Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia told the media Wednesday, according to news reports.
The country will be “unable to meet our poverty reduction target” unless all Filipinos have access to family planning, Pernia said. But if the campaign is in full effect by 2022, population growth should decrease from its current rate of 1.7 percent to 1.4 percent, according to Juan Antonio Perez, executive director of the Commission on Population.
In a country where 80 percent of the population is Catholic, efforts to expand reproductive rights have been challenging. Anti-abortion groups, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, have either halted or delayed family planning efforts in the country. It took 14 years to pass Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 – legislation that makes sex education and birth control more accessible to the poor.
Three years after the act finally passed, the Supreme Court issued a restraining order on parts of the act. That move banned sub-dermal implants and contraceptive license renewals.
Multiple appeals to lift the ban have failed. Duterte’s executive order doesn’t reverse the ban, but works around it by focusing on other forms of contraception, Perez told the Philippine Inquirer. If the ban is not lifted in the next three to four years, licenses on these other contraceptives will expire, leaving the government unable to procure or distribute them either.
“The implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law must be put into full force and effect so that couples, especially the poor, will have freedom of informed choice in the number and spacing of children they can adequately care and provide for, eventually making them more productive members of the labor force,” the press release quoted Duterte saying in his first State of the Nation Address.
According to the order, national agencies like the Department of Health will work with local governments and private organizations to increase access to birth control, sex education and maternal care. They will also conduct community campaigns to spread awareness of available services, seek out interested families and deliver the services.
The executive order comes as public urgency grows to address the ballooning population and dwindling contraceptive supplies. Pernia said it will also reduce maternal deaths and teenage pregnancy, according to the Associated Press. Last year, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that the Philippines is the only country in the Asia-Pacific where adolescent pregnancy rates have not declined over 20 years.
Although officials expect more opposition from the Catholic Church, Duterte has repeatedly shown little regard for other authorities. The brazen president has filled his seven months in office with controversies that include taking China to court over a territorial dispute, challenging the Philippines’ long-time alliance with the U.S. and inciting a drug war in which thousands have been killed without due process. While still mayor, he called the Pope a “son of a whore.”
“[Anti-abortion groups] keep saying that contraception or family planning or the reproductive health law is abortifacient, it’s anti-life,” Pernia said, according to CNN Philippines. “But … we in the government, we think differently. … We feel that it is pro-life, pro-women, pro-children and pro-economic development.”