02 October 2008

Misinforming the 'Misinformed'

Photo courtesy of Andrea in Brazil
The debate for the passage or junking of House Bill No. 5043, otherwise known as the Reproductive Health Bill, has been the main agenda in the plenary sessions for several days now. Both supporters and critics have started to mobilize their resources to fund several ads in the papers asking the public to support their cause. One of these groups is the Couples for Christ Foundation, Inc. (CFC).

The CFC is a religious movement that began in 1981 in the Archdiocese of Manila. Since that time, CFC has spread to almost all provinces in the Philippines, as well as to 35 other countries. CFC is basically a family life renewal ministry. It is an organization that provides educational services and religious and relationship counseling to couples and individuals.

Unfortunately, they also trying to distort the truth by presenting only one side of the argument and conveniently ignoring the whole intention of HBN 5043. For instance, they released an ad in the papers posing 7 questions to the public about the bill. There is nothing wrong with that, except that some of the questions were leading questions that it is so obvious what they want the reader to answer. If this is the case, then why do they ask these questions at all? If the ad was meant to inform, then why not present the whole picture?

Let us now take a look at each of the seven questions that they posed and see if they really are intended to guide the public in supporting or abhorring HBN 5043.
  1. Do you agree that our children be given Sex Education for 7 years starting from Grade 5?
  2. This question was very simple and merits a quick answer. It seems the right question to ask in this case except that it did not explain what is the definition of sex education. Maybe it could have informed the reader first that sex education, which is sometimes called sexuality education or sex and relationships education, is the process of acquiring information and forming attitudes and beliefs about sex, sexual identity, relationships and intimacy. Sex education is also about developing young people's skills so that they make informed choices about their behavior, and feel confident and competent about acting on these choices. Or better yet, the paid ad could have warned the readers that it is widely accepted that young people have a right to sex education, partly because it is a means by which they are helped to protect themselves against abuse, exploitation, unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.
  3. Do you agree that the Population Commission (POPCOM) develop the modules to form our children’s attitudes, beliefs and values about sex, sexual identity, sexual behavior, sexual health and gender roles
  4. Do you agree that the POPCOM teach our children the distinction between facts and myths regarding sex and sexuality?
  5. It is obvious that both questions are trying to give the impression that POPCOM is the only entity affecting the child’s views about sexuality and deliberately ignored the fact that there are several means by which a child can access information. Young people get information about sex and sexuality from a wide range of sources including each other, through the media including advertising, television and magazines, as well as leaflets, books and websites. Some of this will be accurate, but many are inaccurate. Maybe CFC thought that exposing these children to unregulated information is much safer than having POPCOM telling them how to protect themselves.
  6. Do you agree that our children be taught Sex Education as a class, notwithstanding the different stages and readiness each child has to receive such sensitive information?
  7. Now they really are on a roll. There is nothing wrong with the first part of the question, but the qualifier in the second part is really pushing it. It is like asking someone this question: “Do you agree to jump in the water, knowing that it is full of hungry white sharks that were put there for the purpose of eating anybody who jumps even if jumping is the only means of escape from the sinking and burning ship?” Wow, what a mouthful. There is nothing wrong with teaching sex education in class because young people are always interested in the moral and cultural frameworks that bind sex and sexuality. When I was in grade school, my classmates and I always welcome opportunities to talk about issues where people have strong views, like abortion, sex before marriage, lesbian and gay issues and contraception and birth control. What is wrong is not talking about these matters in a balanced way. Differences in opinion do not promote one set of views over another, or mean that one agrees with a particular view. Part of exploring and understanding cultural, religious and moral views is finding out that you can agree to disagree.
  8. Do you agree that our children, from age 10 to their adolescent years be taught that is their right to have satisfying and “safe” sex life?
  9. If the fourth question was trying to push it, this time the qualifier was trying to ram in down the public’s throat as if it is the universal truth. And what is it with the quotation marks enclosing safe? Was that for emphasis only or something else? Anyway, sex education in school is not about having a satisfactory and safe sex. It is about finding out what young people already know and adding to their existing knowledge and correcting any misinformation they may have. For example, young people may have heard that condoms are not effective against HIV/AIDS or that there is a cure for AIDS. It is important to provide information which corrects mistaken beliefs. Without correct information young people can put themselves at greater risk. Sex education that works usually starts as early as 10 years old or before young people reach puberty or before they have developed established patterns of behavior. There is no reason to delay providing information to young people because it can become the foundation on which more complex knowledge is built up over time. This also means that sex education has to be sustained. For example, when they are very young, children are provided with information about viruses and germs that attack the body. This provides the basis for talking to them later about infections that can be caught through sexual contact.
  10. Do you agree that our children, from age 10 to their adolescent years, learn the use and application of family planning methods?
  11. This question is trying to single out family planning when it is just one component of sex education. This question could have included a clarifying clause that states aside from the application of family planning and contraceptive methods, sex education will discuss how they decide what to use or not and how they can be obtained. Aside from this, sex education will also discuss the physical and emotional changes associated with puberty and sexual reproduction, including fertilization and conception and about sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. If the above topics are not enough, sex education will also include information about relationships, such as what kinds of relationships there are, about love and commitment, marriage and partnership and the law relating to sexual behavior and relationships as well as the range of religious and cultural views on sex and sexuality and sexual diversity.
  12. Do you agree that our children’s moral and religious beliefs regarding sensitive issues like abortion be challenged and discussed in the classroom apart from the guidance of parents?
  13. Maybe whoever wrote this question should be informed, be it too late, that the sensitivity of an issue is relative. Anyway, CFC was quick to point out that children have different stages of readiness in question number 4, but conveniently disregarded the possibility that different settings provide different contexts and opportunities for sex education. At home, young people can easily have one-to-one discussions with parents which focus on specific issues, questions or concerns. In school the interaction between the teacher and young people takes a different form. It is not as well suited to advising the individual as it is to providing information from an impartial point of view. Also, there is widespread agreement that formal education should include sex education and what works in a school setting has been well-researched. Evidence suggests that effective elements in school programs include, a focus on reducing specific risky behaviors, a basis in theories explaining what influences people's sexual choices and behavior; among others.
Well, those are the seven deadly sins este seven questions posed by the paid ad of CFC. There is one more kicker at the bottom part which reads, “Let us not allow the State to form our children’s moral and ethical values regarding the sensitive matter of their sexuality”. So, who will? The catholic church? Isn’t this the same institution that was mired in several controversies lately, including the supposedly celibate priests impregnating some poor barrio lass?

Anyway, HBN 5043 is not imposing its own moral and ethical values regarding sexuality. Rather it is empowering the family, a basic unit of society, with the help of the schools to do this. It is clear in the bill and only those that refuse to see it are blind to it.

For those who are interested in studying the provisions of the Reproductive Health Bill, they can log on to the Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) site here.