On September 28, feminist activists around the world mobilize around International Safe Abortion Day. The day originated in Latin America and was known as “Campaña 28 de Septiembre por la Despenalización del Aborto”. In 2011, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) adapted the campaign into an annual global event with a specific theme or focus each year.

This year, the campaign theme is “Safe Abortion is Essential Healthcare #MakeUnsafeAbortionHistory”.

For safe abortion advocates in the Philippines, September 28 this year marks the first anniversary of the launch of the first-ever proposed bill and parallel campaign to decriminalize abortion in the country. 

The Philippines remains to have one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Women, physicians, and anyone involved in inducing an abortion may be punished with up to six years of imprisonment. There are no express provisions allowing exceptions. 

Despite the restrictive law, many Filipino women still seek out abortions. Because of the restrictive law, most of them end up having unsafe abortions.

Decriminalizing abortion would remove penalties on women and other marginalized genders for having abortions, as well as medical practitioners who may wish to provide the service. It would also reverse a centuries-old law dating back to Spanish colonial times.

Apart from the fact that both the proposed legislation and the campaign are firsts for the country, the September 28, 2020 launch is also historic in that it happened amid an unprecedented global pandemic.

“The reason why we’re talking about this now… is because of the pandemic,” Philippine Safe Abortion Network (PINSAN) spokesperson Clara Rita Padilla has said.

During the launch, advocates rang the alarm on the rise of unintended pregnancies amid lockdown as a result of barriers to access reproductive health information, services, and commodities as well as a spike in incidences of gender-based violence.

According to advocates, these pandemic-induced conditions would increase unsafe abortions and constitute a public health emergency.

They were right.

Emerging estimates from 2020 project that around 1.26 million abortions were induced in the country.

This presents an increase of more than 100% from previous estimates made in 2012 of around 610,000 induced abortions. Back then, three women were estimated to have died from complications related to unsafe abortion.

“Campaigning on such a grim picture is difficult but necessary,” says Marevic Parcon, Executive Director of the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR). “But we try our best to also present a different picture – one where women and marginalized genders assert their rights to reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy.”

Indeed, in the last year, WGNRR and PINSAN organized online discussions, learning sessions, and art workshops to present the current picture of abortion in the Philippines, but as well as to invite people to dream and hope for a better future. They even produced a music album, Pasya (Choice or Decision in English), that celebrates “the strength of people standing up to challenges against their rights to bodily autonomy”. 

Still, in a Catholic-majority country with few progressive politicians, advocating for safe abortion remains challenging. But in the year that was, it seemed clear that for these advocates, holding space for one another and for people who have experiences of abortion is creating that future where unsafe abortion is history.

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