In the spirit of picking your battles, I really tried to ignore the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ threat to deny communion and to campaign against Filipino politicians supporting reproductive health bills. But I’m still ticked off about it, and Karnythia’s post on bodily autonomy and Renee’s musings on patriarchal control over women’s fertility have me thinking.
Growing up in the Philippines, I did not always notice how tenuous the concept of bodily autonomy was. And I’m not even talking about abortion, which is illegal over there. (There’s no divorce law either.)
When you’re a woman in the Philippines, social institutions around you continually collude to erode any autonomy you have over your body.
Consider the issue of contraception. Despite evidence on how access to reproductive health services promotes women’s and maternal health, contraceptives are still banned from government clinics in cities like Manila. Some buy contraception from private clinics or travel to other cities. Women who find it difficult to travel — low-income women or women in militarized areas, for example — are more likely to have their bodily autonomy curtailed.
Many government clinics also limit the distribution of contraception to married couples. Yes, you have to present a marriage certificate, so single women have even less options.
To illustrate just how strongly these institutions can curtail women’s autonomy, let me share a story about a woman I love.
This woman and her husband decided that she would have a tubal ligation. (No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t consider a vasectomy.) She’s a physician at one of the better hospitals in Manila, so of course, that hospital was out. She could not risk hospital authorities knowing about the ligation.
So this couple went to another hospital, checked in using fake names, and she got the procedure done. Her husband had to be there to give his consent for the ligation. She even chose not to share important medical information with her doctors, for fear of being recognized.
This is a couple who come from a relatively privileged background — university-educated, good jobs, higher socioeconomic status. She had a supportive husband who helped her assert her bodily autonomy, albeit in a severely limited fashion.
The issues of reproductive health in the Philippines have been portrayed in terms of population control, or the red herring of abortion. But these framings reduce women to their bodies and reproductive organs. This framing is even more pronounced in one Filipino bishop’s statement that people are stewards and not “proprietors” of their own bodies. Of course, this does not stop religious leaders from trying to control women’s bodies.
The commonality among all the pictures — from low-income women fighting for contraception in government clinics to couples seeking sterilization procedures under fake names — is the idea that women’s bodies and fertility need to be reined in. That Filipina women’s bodies are not their own to take pleasure in. Not their own to be healthy in and to live in.
There’s much more about this to unpack, and I’m still thinking and getting mad about it. Any thoughts to help me along?