MANILA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Philippines legislature's decision to eliminate funding for contraception will fuel HIV infections, maternal deaths and teen pregnancies, particularly among poor girls and women, reproductive rights advocates said on Friday.
The decision to cut the $21 million contraceptive budget surprised and infuriated legislators and advocacy groups who had struggled more than a decade to pass the Reproductive Health Law that guaranteed funds to provide contraceptives to the poor.
"We are so insulted by this. It is a violation of the very essence of a law that Congress itself enacted," said Rom Dongeto, executive director of the Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development Foundation (PLCPD) comprised of lawmakers and members of civil society.
"Women are dying from maternal complications, teens are getting pregnant and people are dying from HIV-related causes. Lives of Filipino citizens are at stake," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
The Philippines, a largely Catholic archipelago nation of about 100 million people, has struggled to manage its burgeoning population and seen skyrocketing HIV infection rates in recent years.
The Reproductive Health Law, passed in 2012, was contested by pro-life groups, causing the Supreme Court to temporarily halt its implementation. In 2014, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law.
Some of the $21 million cut from the family planning fund went to national defense for the acquisition of aircraft to defend the country's maritime borders, Senator Loren Legarda said in a statement.
Bic Bic Chua, executive director of Catholics for Reproductive Health, said the law becomes irrelevant if it is not funded.
"I am enraged," Chua said. "We have raised awareness and expectations. There is an increased demand for family planning services. What will we tell these women? They just want a chance to plan their families - is that too much to ask for?"
Lina Bacalando, a village health worker with the Likhaan Center for Women's Health, shared the frustration.
"We fought for this law for 15 years. When it was passed, it gave us hope that poor women would have the same access to contraceptives as rich women," she said.
The cheapest birth control pills cost $1 - enough to buy a kilogram of rice and a can of sardines.
"We can't expect poor women to forego one meal to get pills. What we can expect is more unintended pregnancies," Bacalando said.
Secretary of Health Janette Garin has said the health department will have to look to private partners and donors to fill contraceptive supplies.
But that could be challenging, according to Klaus Beck, head of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) in the Philippines.
"The expectation is that as a middle income country, the Philippines can fund its own programs with less support from donors," Beck said.
"What signal does it send to the development world about the country's commitment to reproductive health when it does not fund a law that it has already passed?"
(Reporting by Ana P. Santos, with additional reporting from Manuel Mogato. Editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women���s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)