pop goes the world: freedom of choice

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  16 August 2012, Thursday

Freedom of Choice

My column last week, “Science and superstition”, where I declared my support for the RH Bill, drew over 600 Facebook “Likes”, a rarity.

However, there were a few people who badly misread my article, saying it was an attack on religion and that I was trying to persuade the Philippines to embrace science and turn away from God.

Nowhere in that column did I advocate a repudiation of religion. Freedom of worship is a human right. I have always been on the side of choice, and people should be able to make their own decisions when it comes to what God they obey and what they wish to do in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

What I said in that column was that superstition and the biases of one religion should not be allowed to influence legislation, because it has an effect on the lives of many people of different faiths and backgrounds. The State’s duty is to care for all its people, not just for one group.

I suppose I was misunderstood because I did not put my point as elegantly as did fellow MST columnist Father Rannie Aquino, who eloquently wrote in his last column, “We have no right to expect the public nor the legislature to accept Catholic premises. We then have no right to expect them to draw the peculiar Catholic conclusions that we draw…we have no right demanding of our legislature that it adopt our religious arguments.”

He also said, “When one insists that things be done as one reads his scripture (be these Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu scriptures), the one is immediately confronted by the fundamental conviction of modernity – that the State should be neutral towards world-views, that all enjoy equal religious freedom, and that science be emancipated from religion.”

Legislators, then, as statesmen, are in an unenviable position. They have to make impartial decisions for the good of everyone, but they are human beings swayed by their mindsets, experiences, and prejudices.

Take Senator Tito Sotto. He used a rare legislative tactic called turno en contro to air his lengthy anti-RH views. Among the reasons he gave in an effort to prove his point was a personal experience related to his baby son’s  death that was blamed on his wife’s contraceptive use.

I understand the senator’s pain. I have also lost loved ones and will never stop grieving for them. He receives our commiseration and sympathy. But the fact is this is just one person’s experience.

In our highly populated society, there are a myriad experiences, both positive and negative. In the same way that we should not allow one group’s biases to influence law, neither should we let one person’s experience be the basis for legislation that will impact the lives of millions of Filipinos for years to come.

If we’re talking about personal experiences, here’s the story of Mina Capote, who worked as my household helper some years back. She has 13 children by two husbands. She only had a third-grade education; neither her husbands finished high school. The first was unemployed. The second was a groom in horseracing.

The eldest daughter, “Fanny”, was, at 10 years old, tasked with caring for her siblings. Being only a child herself, she could not keep an eye on all of them, so “Sam”, eight, lost an eye in an accident, while others suffered various mishaps. They usually went hungry. I sent them extra food and used clothes when I could.

To augment the family income, Fanny worked as a helper when she turned 15. Her employer raped her. Later I heard she found work in a bar.

When I asked Mina once why she does not use contraceptives, she replied, “They say it’s bad for the health.” I asked her who “they” were. She shrugged. “Sabi lang nila.” (They just said.)

It is the height of irresponsibility to bring children into the world that one cannot care for properly, that one cannot adequately feed, shelter, send to school, and keep safe. No one disputes that educated women of means use various family-planning options such as contraceptives, sterilization, natural method, and so on. But these options are not available or even known to women like Mina, whose ignorance constrains them from planning a better life for themselves and their children.

But when knowledge and opportunity are available, women are able to make informed decisions for themselves to plan their family size. In the news recently was a report about how over 4,000 women in Tagum, Davao, have opted for the free tubal ligation offered in that city as part of its own reproductive health program since it was launched in 2006.

Over that same period, only 76 men availed themselves of free vasectomies. This is a clear indicator of social and cultural norms that place the burden of family planning on the woman, rather than on the man.

Kudos to Tagum mayor Rey Uy who has continued the program despite Catholic opposition to it. The program has allowed the city to exclude itself from the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino program (4Ps) cash transfer campaign, because poverty incidence in Tagum has dropped to 15 percent. The national average is 27 percent.

The RH Bill willl inform more Filipinos, especially women, about the planning options that they have. If they decide to have many children, or few, or none at all, that is their choice.

It is illogical, unfair, and selfish to let one person or one group decide for everyone else the choices that they may have. Freedom of choice is a human right; let us ensure that everyone in our society enjoys this freedom.  *** 

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