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Reproductive Justice in the Reproductive Health Law and Divorce Bill in the Philippines

Last September 2023, the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations, and Gender Equality approved “a consolidated measure that provides for absolute divorce based on various grounds, including five years of separation, whether continuous or broken, and the commission of the crime of rape before or after marriage.”[1]  This comes a decade or so after the signing of the reproductive health bill into law in 2012, which was also fraught with controversy in a country where the Catholic church is still a strong institution, especially in the more rural areas outside of the metropolitan cities.[2]  As the “last holdout” where divorce is illegal, the Catholic church here as fought fiercely to keep this “honor,” as there was a feeling that the church “lost” power and influence when the reproductive health bill was signed into law.

The concern with divorce and reproductive health is connected, and stems from the injustice Filipino women face in marriage and the family. Men often force the women to have sex in marriage, claiming there is no such thing as rape in marriage as marriage entitles the man to sex. When the woman becomes pregnant and has children, the man is not really expected to care for them, and often the woman is left to care for their children. Should the man leave for someone else, laws that require fathers to support their biological children are not strictly enforced, if enforced at all, and women are left to be solo parents in a country where dual incomes are needed to survive. Men can also have several mistresses and sire children with them, with this phenomenon being seen as a sign of virility and a badge of honor, whereas women are still seen as “sluts” or “whores” if they are found to have had multiple partners. The opposition to divorce and reproductive health and contraception measures has contributed to the growing number of “illegitimate” children in the country, who have no stable home or care, and who are shamed for their “illegitimate” status. Women thus become reduced to objects, essentialized to particular gender roles as mothers or mistresses “illegitimate”, and unjustly treated, while any children women bear outside of a traditional marriage or family structure are perceived as “illegitimate” and a “shame”.

Reproductive justice as a framework is helpful in that it can clarify further what justice can and should look like in the reproductive health law and the divorce bill. As a framework, reproductive justice goes beyond discussing the importance of consent and just individual agents’ choices and rights, but also includes the structural factors that affect issues of sex, gender, marriage, and reproductive health.[3] The framework does not reduce particular positions and arguments on the issues of reproductive health to simply being “pro-choice” or “pro-life”—which may not help people enter into meaningful dialogue that can move us forward on the problems at hand. Rather, reproductive justice as a framework takes a more holistic look at the issues and gives a more nuanced way of understanding what is at stake in these moral issues. “Reproductive justice advocates have held that justice for pregnant women requires affordable health care for all, attention to racial disparities in maternal and infant mortality, affordable child care, equal pay for working women, family and medical leave/bonding policies that enable women to recover physically from childbirth before returning to work, comprehensive sexual education that includes honest conversations with pre-teens and teenagers about all of the social realities they are facing, an end to human trafficking and sexual violence, and real conversations about consent and hookup culture—among many other social goods and moral issues.”[4]

In the Philippines where relationality and community are important, reproductive justice can be a more welcome framework to use as the foundational for the implementation of the reproductive health law, as well as the understanding of annulment and divorce in the divorce bill and conversations as to whether to pass this into law. Reproductive justice highlights the relationships of the people, particularly women, to each other, and what is needed to care for their well-being—it can help flesh out the guidelines of divorce in the country while still being sensitive to the concerns of Filipino culture, given the current divorce bill’s inclusions: “Grounds for divorce in this bill include physical violence against a spouse or child, imprisonment of a spouse for more than six years, abandonment for more than a year, sexual infidelity or perversion, bigamy, homosexuality, or drug addiction. Except in cases that involve violence against women or children, the court would not be allowed to take any action for six months after the initial filing — a kind of cooling-off period. The bill also obliges the court to ‘take steps toward the reconciliation of the spouses’ before granting the final decree. Most importantly, the bill provides guidelines for the division of assets, child support, and payment of damages to ‘the innocent spouse.’”[5] Reproductive justice can further articulate how this might look like in reality, in dialogue with the concrete Filipino experiences of families, especially the women and mothers in the Filipino family and in response to the concern that divorce would cheapen the sacrament and institution of marriage in the country.

As for the reproductive health law, reproductive justice is a good framework for a comprehensive sex education, as comprehensive sex education is part of the reproductive health law but has not been as well-implemented. Reproductive justice can be the foundation of an age-appropriate comprehensive sex education that is not just about consenting to sex, but also helping people be responsible by learning the implications of engaging in sex, pregnancy, contraception, and marriage and its impact on one’s reproductive and overall health and relationships, as well as its relationship to other social issues such as poverty. Rather than just drawing the battle lines between or among polarized factions, reproductive justice as a framework provides a more nuanced understanding of what is needed for better reproductive health, especially in terms of a comprehensive sex education for the population here in the Philippines, which is still quite young and trying to understand their bodies and how to relate to one another.[6]

Looking at the bigger picture, a better understanding of reproductive issues through the lens of justice ideally helps couples and families flourish, giving the space and material to make better decisions for and with the family. In a country such as the Philippines that prides itself on being very family-centric, it is the hope that the reproductive justice framework, when used as a guiding framework for family related issues, will help families ultimately flourish in the common good.

[1] Cecille Suerte Felipe, “Divorce Bill An Uphill Battle” – Tulfo”, Philippine Star, September 25, 2023, https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2023/09/25/2298815/divorce-bill-uphill-battle-tulfo. However, the state does recognize and allow Islamic law and its provisions for divorce to apply to Muslims within the country.

[2] Michael Lipka, “5 Facts About Catholicism in the Philippines”, Pew Research Center, January 9, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2015/01/09/5-facts-about-catholicism-in-the-philippines/#:~:text=The%20Philippines’%20Catholic%20majority%20has,(in%201981%20and%201995).

[3] Emily Reimer-Barry, “Wisdom from a Reproductive Justice Framework”, Journal of Moral Theology 12, no. 1 (2023): 131-134.

[4] Reimer-Barry, “Wisdom from a Reproductive Justice Framework”, 133. Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger offer a good introductory text on reproductive justice as a framework.

[5] Tom Hundley and Ana P. Santos, “The Last Country in the World Where Divorce is Illegal”, Foreign Policy January 19, 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/19/the-last-country-in-the-world-where-divorce-is-illegal-philippines-catholic-church/.

[6] Philippine Statistics Authory, “Age and Sex Distribution in the Philippine Population (2020 Census of Population and Housing)”, Philippine Statistics Authority, August 12, 2022, https://psa.gov.ph/content/age-and-sex-distribution-philippine-population-2020-census-population-and-housing.