CRR in the Field: Payal Shah

Since 1992, the Center's innovative legal work has fundamentally transformed the landscape of reproductive health and rights worldwide, and has already strengthened laws and policies in more than 50 countries. CRR in the Field is a personal look at the various ways Center staff interacts with plaintiffs, policy makers, governing bodies, and supporters at home and abroad to further the fight for reproductive rights.

Name: Payal Shah
Position: Legal Adviser for Asia
Reporting from: The Philippines

Q: It's been three months since the Center's report Forsaken Lives was launched. What impact is the report having on the ground?

A: Forsaken Lives has sparked a wave of media coverage on both the issue of unsafe abortion and abuses and lapses in quality of post-abortion care. The report has brought women's stories under the criminal abortion ban to audiences in international, national, and provincial level media. Reporters have stated that the Center's report is the first time they've seen the criminal abortion ban presented as a violation of international and constitutional law, and, as a result, the media coverage has actually included interviews with the Department of Health and other government officials about what they are doing about the problem.

Drawing on the findings of the report, longtime local advocates for women's reproductive rights have reenergized their efforts to promote reform and accountability. With our partners, the Center has hosted several events to bring together both leading activists as well as new allies and voices in the movement.

Q: What are the continuing challenges to promoting reproductive rights in the Philippines?

A: While the media coverage is beginning to change the discourse, the central challenge to promoting reproductive rights in the Philippines is the tacit acceptance of the government's acquiescence to religious pressure to compromise women's health and rights. The government must uphold its obligations under human rights law to ensure that women's health is not compromised by ideologically-based laws, even in the face of political threats. Another challenge is the rampant misinformation present in the Philippines concerning the laws themselves. For example, the report found that many physicians believe that treating a woman admitted for post-abortion complications after an unsafe abortion is equivalent to being an accessory to that crime. That is simply untrue, but the fear that physicians feel is often at the root of their abuse of women seeking care.

Q: What are the next steps forward?

A: Local advocates have emphasized the need to clarify the criminal abortion law with special emphasis on a physicians' duty to treat women with complications from illegal abortion and with regards to cases where women's lives and health are at risk. The Center is working with our partners to seek such clarification, which is essential to ensure that women are not deprived of their fundamental rights due to ambiguities in the law.

Q: Why is it important for the Center to have a presence in the Philippines?

A: Forsaken Lives would not have been possible without repeated visits to the Philippines where we were able to speak directly with women, health care providers, government officials, lawyers, and advocates to fully document the human rights violations occurring under the criminal abortion ban. Our recommendations are based on interviews on the ground, and our advocacy is shaped by the insights of our partners in the region.

Personally, the time we spent in the region is invaluable to my understanding of the devastating impact of these restrictive and ambiguous laws on women's lives and health as well as on health care providers' ability to give quality care. By maintaining a steady relationship with advocates and women themselves, the Center is able to ensure that our work is timely, innovative, and truly responsive to the needs of women in the region.