The RH bill: Resolving the controversy with science

Flor Lacanilao

Most published and posted commentaries on the RH bill show poor public understanding of science. I am sharing here a summary of my comments posted at the online forum on Philippine science. It is focused on the nature and role of science.

The objectives of science don’t include to find the truth. They are aimed to understand nature and the universe. Researchers do investigations to produce information — used for education, development programs, policy-making, developing technology etc. — for the people’s well-being.

Many studies are meant to build up or strengthen scientific consensus, as in evolution and climate change. These are factual conclusions — that is, supported by valid data. They are not the truth nor are they permanent; they can be changed by more studies. This is the progressive nature of science.

That nature of science explains why most harmful predictions — like Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” (1968) — did not happen. Continued research stopped the serious threats.

The same corrective actions of science can stop side effects or unexpected results — serendipitous nature of scientific research. The discovery of DDT for saving lives from malaria had unexpected by-product, which damage ecosystems.

On the other hand, the threats on the economyof demographic winter (or reduced, aging human population), peddled by nonscientists who are against the RH bill, are without scientific basis. I have yet to see properly published studies verifying the claims (find out with Advanced Google Scholar, by searching for publications covered in Science Citation Index or Social Sciences Citation Index. These are the internationally accepted criteria in evaluating research performance.

Hence, results of scientific research — that is, properly published — are reliable bases for resolving crucial, controversial issues, and making policy decisions. In the DDT case, for example, they influenced the decisions for its medical use and for its subsequent worldwide ban.

Scientists do not debate religious views. They try to explain science. “Science and religion are different ways of understanding. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of both to contribute to a better future.” (Read more in “Science, Evolution, and Creationism” <>).


  1. angie,
    I think it is a self evident truth that uncontrolled population growth rate will put pressure on the economy as there will be more mouths to feed while the supply of resources is limited. Hence,the scientific basis that the demographic winter/transition will not be a threat to economy is a valid issue addressed by the passage of RH bill. However,on the macroeconomic level,the problem facing the economy is not the supply side impeding the real GNP growth. For example, in the food/catering business, the cost of food per customer will decrease dramatically as more customers will be served since you have a fixed cost. corollary to this, more income and sales generated thru increases in consumer population will benefit the economy. In my view, what should be the focus of the legislative agenda is how the income pie generated by GNP will be shared equitably,benefits of foreign investment have a down stream effect to the marginalized sector and to resolve an effective,progressive taxation by shifting the burden of taxation from rich sector earning billions of profits by a few individuals.

  2. It maybe useful to direct the discussion on the RH bill on things that are much more substantial.

    There is a landmark paper by Lant H. Pritchett, “Desired fertility and the impact of population policies” in 1994 where he concluded that

    “desired levels of fertility account for ninety percent of differences across countries in total fertility rates. Reducing the demand for children – for instance by giving girls more education – is vastly more important to reducing fertility than providing more contraceptives or family planning services.”

    Pritchett did add at the end of the paper:

    “…even if contraceptive access has a small effect on fertility, this is certainly no reason for govemments to limit the availability of contraception, and there may yet be valid reasons for a subsidy. Just because family planning is of marginal relevance for population change does not mean it does not have other beneficial impacts. Moreover, a reduction in the focus of family planning programs on population growth will allow greater attentiveness in the design of contraceptive supply to other considerations, such as child and matemal health, the timing of first births, and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases….”

    The RH bill must be examined on scientific grounds and weighed against its goals. There is no argument against improving child and maternal health. But we must be careful with regard to the details of fertility and population growth.

    • thats true cross countries. some countries have desired and actual fertility rates track well. others, like RPs, dont. Thus, a cross country study takes the average and find that most countries’ case (or the average country’s case), those two things track together.

      it says nothing about the philippines as a specific case, though…

      • To understand better Pritchett’s work, one may begin with the following realization. The only justification for funding or subsidizing artificial contraceptives is an “unmet need” for such services/medicine by poor couples. There is no other justification unless one desires to go beyond freedom of choice, which I hope no one is implying. Forced birth control is unethical.

        So to address the merits of the RH bill, one needs to examine the “unmet need”. Pritchett first acknowledges the difficulty of getting data on “unmet need”. Reading the entire paper provides clear explanations on why this is particularly difficult. Pritchett then examines what factor does correlate with fertility or birth rate. And his work (and the finding is not confined to any specific region or country, this is supposed to be universal) shows that what correlates strongly with birth rate or fertility is the desire of couples to have children. It does not matter whether artificial contraceptives are available or not – what matters is what each individual chooses. If an individual wants to have a big family, that individual will still have a big family.

        To help understand this, one can ask the question; what is more costly, getting artificial contraceptives or actually conceiving a child, giving birth and rearing one. The cost of having an additional child is far greater than the cost of any contraceptive. There is obviously no comparison. And this maybe the reason why limited access to artificial contraceptives or their costs are unlikely to be the real factors behind high birth rates. If a couple do not really want to have a child, the couple would find ways to do so.

        I quoted an important paragraph from Pritchett to show that the above is not the complete story. Artificial contraceptives have other purposes. And there are alternative ways of looking at how the government can better address reproductive health.

        Nonetheless, these are the discussions that are warranted: A closer look at the aims of the bill and what it can actually achieve. The Philippines is not a rich country and it cannot afford to waste funds on programs that will not work.

        Attaining responsible parenthood and good stewardship of our limited resources is ethical. But we must protect choice. How we guide people to make the choice that is good for every individual and for the society as a whole is the difficult part. Giving away free contraceptives does not work according to Pritchett.

        • “If a couple do not really want to have a child, the couple would find ways to do so.” i’m afraid this does not apply to the masses of filipino poor, mostly uninformed about sex and reproduction, no thanks to the catholic church.

          • Pritchett’s study did not include only countries that are either catholic or non catholic. The study involved countries of diverse beliefs, traditions and values. Bring the discussion above unscientifc premises to weigh the RH bill better on a firmer ground – on whether it will actually work or not. This study says it will not and it should be taken seriously.

  3. @AC de Dios: “what correlates strongly with birth rate or fertility is the desire of couples to have children.” wha??? that’s a scientific finding? anywhere in the world, i am sure that when couples have sex, it is more often for pleasure than to make a baby. we are wired to physically desire our mates, whether or not we want babies, precisely to ensure the perpetuation of the human race.

  4. “If aliens were observing us, they would wonder why there is even a debate about the RH bill. It is because old men in robes in a place called Rome, who vowed not to reproduce, insist that the rest of us should keep doing so regardless of the consequences. They claim that this teaching comes from someone born 2,000 years ago, yet according to their own records, he never said such a thing. The aliens would observe that these humans have a science called “ecology” that, based on empirically-verifiable, causal relationships (not belief), they can make predictions concerning the consequences of overpopulation and environmental degradation. The humans also have historical records and extensive analyses of how these predictions have come to pass. Yet, for years, they debate this RH bill and many of their leaders still oppose it, for fear they might offend the men in robes and be invited to a barbecue in a place called Hell.”– Raul Suarez via Flor Lacanilao