According to the 2013 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS), around 32 percent of Filipino youth are sexually active. This is almost a third of Filipino youth aged 15-24 reported to be sexually active. 

Clearly, for many young Filipinos, sex is a reality that they are already confronting. If they are not having sex themselves, their peers likely are. Despite this, however, young people also register some of the lowest contraceptive prevalence rates and the highest unmet need for family planning in the country, resulting in alarming adolescent pregnancy rates.

Data from the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) show that one in every ten young women aged 15-19 is already a mother or pregnant with her first child.

These realities point to why more and more young people are getting involved in advocacies relating to their sexual and reproductive health (SRH), including access to safe abortion.

“We are advocating for [access to safe abortion] because even as young as we are, we already see the need for it. We may need it for ourselves, our friends, our family, or even the right to make decisions for ourselves in the future if needed,” explained Nina Co, Founder of Amarela Philippines, a self-organized group of young people advocating for sexual and reproductive health.

I was introduced to Nina on Facebook shortly after Amarela first came out with a set of infographics disseminating information on access to safe abortion and explicitly supporting measures to liberalize abortion laws in the country.

The Philippines has very restrictive laws on abortion found in Articles 2563 -259 of the 1930 Revised Penal Code. This law is directly translated from the 1870 Old Spanish Penal Code which can, in turn, be traced back to the older 1822 Spanish Penal Code. 

When the 1930 Revised Penal Code was adopted, Filipino women did not even have the right to vote and the international bill of human rights had not yet been adopted. Since then, many international human rights instruments recognizing access to safe abortion as a human right have been adopted. But the Philippines has yet to keep up and young people are taking notice.

The infographic from Amarela identifies the strong opposition of the Catholic Church against abortion as a cause behind the government’s lack of action in fulfilling human rights statutes on abortion.

In a predominantly Catholic country where discussion on abortion is still clouded with much stigma and misinformation, many (older) advocates recognized Amarela’s brave feat to affirm access to safe abortion as a human right and as a public health issue. At the same time, we were afraid for Amarela and the possible harassment from the anti-abortion camp they might be subject to.

As we had feared, Amarela’s post on abortion was soon flooded with negative reactions and accusatory remarks on their comments section. We soon learned that these anti-abortion people were led to their page because of a particularly viral post from a conservative page.

This post contained screencaps of conversations between underground abortion providers and women who sought their services and photos of fetuses that were supposedly “aborted” from these transactions. In the same post, Amarela was described as an “idiotic feminist page […] run by naive young senior high girls trying to paint abortion in a sweet, girly, and preppy way” when, according to the post, abortion is “murder at all angles.”

In response, we offered support and opened up our Facebook pages, groups, and initiatives to Amarela so they could have a bigger support network as well as platforms to report incidents of harassment like what had happened.

For more seasoned advocates of safe abortion, narratives from the anti-abortion camp characterizing abortion as murder are not surprising. But many had expressed their concern given that Amarela was still relatively new to the advocacy. 

“It’s not about defending the young. Young or old, support systems are needed to retaliate against this kind of negativity,” said Marevic Parcon, PINSAN member and Executive Director of Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights.

Indeed, Amarela did not need to be “defended.” Like seasoned advocates, their recourse was to educate, and they had also come prepared. In fact, Amarela was already well aware of underground abortions happening in the country, and for them, this was a further argument to support measures like decriminalization of abortion that PINSAN was advocating. 

In their article, Amarela cites that around 1,000 Filipino women die each year from unsafe abortions. They attribute this reality to the country’s restrictive laws on abortion that force women to seek out unsafe and clandestine methods just to end their pregnancies. Hence, the need to relax laws on abortion.

If there was a silver lining to that harrowing experience, it was Amarela’s continued involvement in the advocacy. Since then, they have been joining PINSAN activities, as well as organizing their own educational discussions. They are also now part of the campaign to decriminalize abortion in the Philippines.

I remember being so apologetic to Nina after learning that they had been on the receiving end of online harassment from conservatives and then her telling me that it was “worth it for the advocacy.”

I am young myself, at least relative to this movement, at 25. But still, these younger persons have inspired me. If they can voice out their opinions without prodding from existing organizations and networks, and despite the cloud of stigma and misinformation around abortion, hopefully, more young people will be encouraged to speak up.