Philippines: Supreme Court ruling bolsters landmark law on reproductive rights

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The Philippine Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday to uphold a landmark reproductive health law as constitutional is an important victory for millions of Filipino women and girls, Amnesty International said. 

The court’s decision, which will require the government to provide free contraception to millions of the nation’s poorest women, is being welcomed by activists across the country. 

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a victory for the independence of the judiciary and means that millions of women and girls have a right to access medical services and information they need,” said Hazel Galang-Folli, Amnesty International’s Researcher on the Philippines. 

“The Philippine authorities must resist all ongoing efforts to roll back the country’s landmark law on sexual and reproductive rights. Caving in to pressure would mean denying women and girls their human rights.”

There were, however, some disappointing concessions, some of which are inconsistent with the state’s international human rights obligations. A total of eight provisions were deemed to be unconstitutional by the court – these included key provisions that would have prohibited health practitioners from refusing to provide reproductive health services and required all private health facilities to provide family planning methods.

In a country where 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, surveys have shown that 72 percent of Filipinos support the law.

“While the law is not perfect, it paves the way to removing some of the existing barriers in protecting women and girl’s human right to sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare.  The challenge now will be ensuring that the law is properly implemented and that sufficient resources are dedicated to making it effective,” said Hazel Galang-Folli.

Background

Notable changes in the law include the rejection of Section 23 which would have prohibited health care practitioners from refusing to provide –or refusing to refer to others who would provide—reproductive health services. Section 23 would have also allowed married individuals to undergo reproductive health procedures without the consent of their spouse. 

The ruling also declared unconstitutional section 7, which would have required private health facilities, including those owned by religious groups, to provide family planning methods, including medical consultations, supplies and procedures. This provision would have also allowed girls under 18 who already have children or who have suffered a miscarriage to access modern family planning methods, including contraception, without the need for a written consent from their parents. 

Striking down these provisions of the law mean that some women and adolescents will be at risk of not accessing services they need and are lawfully entitled to receive.  The state should, at a minimum fulfil its international human rights obligations and ensure that there are providers willing and able to provide services and that spousal and parental  consent requirements do not hinder women’s and adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health care services.

As well as enabling public health centres to distribute contraceptives, the law will also introduce reproductive health education into the nation’s schools at a time when the birth-rate in the Philippines stands at around 25 per 1,000 people, one of the highest in Asia.  The Philippines should ensure that reproductive health education is in line with their international human rights obligations, which includes ensuring that reproductive health education is accurate and comprehensive and that it promotes gender equality. 

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