Miriam has seen her share of high-risk operations and procedures in her years as a veteran doctor in the Philippines – but none quite as “complicated or as dangerous” as abortions, she said.
“We take on huge risks if we agree to perform an abortion,” said Miriam, who is using an alias to protect herself from prosecution in the Philippines. She has performed four abortions on women aged 23 to 48 – all in secret.
Abortion is illegal in the Philippines – a majority Catholic country and former American colony – and has been for over a century. Under the law, women found to have aborted their fetuses face prison terms of between two to six years.
Doctors and nurses caught performing abortions or providing assistance are also subject to harsh punishment by the state. “We risk losing our medical licenses and would also face charges in court,” Miriam said.
Prosecution for abortion is now a risk for millions of women across the United States after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made seeking a termination a constitutional right. Now, states have control over laws governing abortion – and some have banned the procedure outright.
In the Philippines, many women seek other solutions to unwanted or unviable pregnancies, regardless of risks.
Lawyer Clara Rita Padilla, a spokeswoman for the Philippine Safe Abortion Advocacy Network (PINSAN), said that while there are “progressive interpretations” of the abortion law in the Philippines, there are no clear exemptions allowing for terminating pregnancies even in severe cases like rape and incest – or to save the life of the pregnant woman.
A study conducted by PINSAN in 2020 found 1.26 million abortions were carried out in the country, “placing the lives and health of Filipina women at risk.” And that figure is expected to grow. Another study by the University of the Philippines estimated that 1.1 million abortions occur every year in the country.
Padilla said most women who had abortions came from poorer financial backgrounds, and many were below the age of 25. In the absence of legal services, women often turned to dangerous underground abortions performed by midwives, healers, and untrained doctors in makeshift clinics, she said.
“The Philippines is a product of very conservative religious beliefs. For us, abortion bans are already a reality – and it’s women from poor families and minority groups who suffer the most.”
Power of the church
Abortion rights activists in the US met the Supreme Court’s decision with outrage. But for those grounded in conservative Catholic beliefs or evangelical principles, the end of Roe wasn’t just a political victory – it was a spiritual one.
This sense of jubilation was also felt in the Philippines, where the Catholic Church wields a great deal of power and influence. Local church leaders and groups who publicly condemn abortion, divorce and the use of modern contraceptives, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision.
“The US Supreme Court’s decision to ban abortion is good news,” Crispin Varquez, a local bishop and prelate of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, said in an interview on Radio Veritas Asia, a church-run station based out of Quezon City.
Varquez said the move was “timely” as it coincided with holy celebrations for the Feast of the Sacred Heart.
“(It’s) a decision enlightened by the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Pope Francis described abortion as akin to “hiring a hitman” and said he respected the Supreme Court’s decision.
“It’s a human life – that’s science,” he told Reuters. “The moral question is whether it is right to take a human life to solve a problem.”
The shame that many Filipina women feel for seeking abortions is often reinforced by their Catholic culture.
“The Catholic Church propagates the narrative that abortion is murder,” said Marevic Parcon, another founding member of PINSAN. Like most Filipino women, Parcon was raised Catholic. She said that religion had shaped her views about abortion very early on. “Attending church, you were always taught to fear abortions,” she said.
“Nuns would show us videos of late stage abortions – it was that horrible control they had over your psyche and emotions.”
The Filipino Catholic Church and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) did not respond to CNN requests for comment.
Suffering in secret
Still, however great the stigma, some women – like Kristy, who is also using an alias for fear of prosecution – conclude they have little choice but to seek out so-called backstreet, or illegal abortions.
The mother of four kept her abortion a secret from her husband and family because she knew “they would never allow it.”
“They would only force me to keep the baby and we are already struggling to feed our four children,” she said. “How can we afford to raise a fifth?”
She has not been on any form of birth control and her husband does not use condoms. Access to other forms of contraception like birth control pills and IUD devices was also out of the question. “I can’t imagine how much that would cost,” she said. “I wouldn’t know how to (go about) getting them or using them.”
So when she became pregnant, she sought the services of a midwife and paid her 550 pesos ($10) for a “healing massage.”
She described being held down by the midwife’s assistant while she went to work, kneading and pounding her lower abdomen that eventually triggered a miscarriage. “It was messy and so awful,” Kristy said. “The pain was so excruciating and I could only scream. I still have trouble sleeping.”
“I feel so much guilt but I know that my family is better for this,” she added.
Time for a change?
Opponents say it’s time for the Philippines to get rid of “inhumane provisions” in its abortion law and finally decriminalize abortion to save women’s lives.
“These regulations have only led to a silent epidemic of unsafe abortions which have cost the lives of so many Filipina women,” said senator Risa Hontiveros, the country’s new opposition leader. “We should also not be sending women to jail after such difficult and painful experiences.”
The practice of unsafe underground abortions had to stop, Hontiveros said. She also reiterated the importance of destigmatizing abortion as a national step for the country.
“Women must vigilantly protect our rights and freedoms especially amid the rise of authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in many countries across the globe,” Hontiveros said. “I fully support the push to decriminalize abortion under Philippine laws.”
In an interview conducted earlier in January, then-presidential hopeful Ferdinand Marcos Jr. shared his views on abortion and said he would legalize it for “severe cases.”
“I think that if it can be shown that (victims) were raped and it was not consensual sex that got them pregnant then they should have the choice to abort or not. The other is incest perhaps,” said Marcos Jr. – who has since been elected President.
He also said he was “more concerned about deaths caused by unsafe abortions” than opposition from church leaders. “It is a woman’s decision because it is her body.”
Advocates and lawmakers welcomed his liberal attitude towards abortion. “Restricting abortion does not stop it, it actually makes it more dangerous and we have seen this play out across the world,” said Parcon of PINSAN.
“Marcos raised it during his election campaign and to us, this was the furthest we have reached so far, and if he says he will make it a priority, then we must call him to account.”
Senator Hontiveros said she welcomed the new President’s “openness” in supporting changes to Philippine abortion laws.
“This gives hope that we can soon decriminalize abortion and reform our laws in consideration of the realities faced by Filipina women and families alike,” she said.
“However, I (am) waiting to see if his words reflect a genuine commitment to uphold women’s rights. For the sake of Filipina women everywhere, I hope that they do.”