Stephanie Dychiu GMANews.TV - Catholic Church Battles Abortion

By Stephanie Dychiu

For the Catholic hierarchy, it must be a dreaded case of the barbarians finally reaching its gates.

Two years ago, at the bidding of Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio became rector of the Church of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, home of the miraculous 400-year-old statue of the kneeling Christ that is the object of frenzied adulation by millions.

To head what the Cardinal calls “the premier church of the Philippines" is an esteemed post any man of the cloth would be eager to assume—except the plaza outside the Quiapo Church also happens to be the abortion capital of Metro Manila.

While the clergy has been steadfastly championing the pro-life cause and battling artificial birth control, the bloodied fruits of unwanted pregnancy have come to besiege its acropolis. “It angers me," says Monsignor Ignacio. “Sometimes I cannot sleep because it is our responsibility."

“The Nazarene performs many miracles"

On any given day, but especially on Fridays, multitudes gather among the blind, the sick, and the lame at the Quiapo Church to beseech the Black Nazerene for favors. The air becomes thick with vulnerability and desperation, so anything paranormal is easily pawned. Black candles for hexing philandering husbands. Towels to wipe on the Black Nazarene’s foot and keep as an amulet. Roots and leaves that cure all ills. And the artfully named pamparegla, an acrid potion for inducing menstruation. Originally devised to treat dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps), it can trigger miscarriages in pregnant women when taken with the restricted anti-ulcer drug Cytotec.

“Maraming himala si Nazareno. Ang hindi buntis, nabubuntis. Ang buntis, biglang hindi na buntis (The Nazarene performs many miracles. Those who are not pregnant become pregnant. Those who are pregnant can be made not pregnant)," syllogizes Roger, one of the many vendors who illicitly sell Cytotec to troubled women flocking to the church for the magical return of their monthly period whenever they are “delayed" and need not be. A large tattoo of the Black Nazarene covers most of his upper arm. “Fanatic ako ni Señor Nazareno (I am a fanatic of Señor Nazareno)," he boasts.

“It started in 1995 . . . “

Sister Nelia, a loose-lipped peddler who has roamed Quiapo for forty years and claims she supplied Ferdinand Marcos with banaba leaves when he was ailing in the US, offers some history. “Nagsimula yan dito 1995. May dumating na babae. Uminom daw siya ng Cytotec nung buntis siya. Reseta ng duktor kasi may ulcer siya. Nalaglag ang bata. Kinalat nang kinalat ang istorya. Ang daming naghanap. Siempre, ang mga tindera, ‘pag may naghahanap, bibigyan (It started in 1995. A woman came. She said she took Cytotec when she was pregnant. Prescribed by a doctor because she had an ulcer. She lost her baby. She spread the story around. Many people started looking for the pills. Of course, vendors give people what they are looking for)."

And who are the people who come looking for the pills? “Ang mga hustisya," cackles Roger. “Ang mga pang-gabing hostess. At tsaka mga asawa ng taga-Saudi. Nami-miss nila asawa nila, nagkakaroon sila ng pagkakasala. Meron ding mga asawa na ayaw nang magdagdag ng anak. Meron ding estudyante (Prostitutes. And wives of contract workers in Saudi. They miss their husbands, so they commit adultery. Also wives who don’t want more children. And students)."

Where do the vendors get the pills, which have been banned from drugstores? “May umiikot dito. Nira-rasyon yan (Somebody goes around. The pills are rationed)," Sister Nelia answers. She adds hastily, “Noong araw, nagbenta ako niyan, pero ngayon, hawak na ako ni Mama Mary (I used to sell those pills in the past, but now, I am with Mama Mary)."

Sometimes, she continues, it is the mother who buys the pills when those who get pregnant are very young, or have sensitive professions (lawyer, doctor). The mother also does the buying when rape or incest caused the pregnancy.

Not just the poor girl’s pill

Middle-class women impregnated under less sordid circumstances are not beyond turning to Cytotec in their hour of need, often with full support from husbands and boyfriends.

“Please advice… I’m positive 8 weeks," writes yummee439 on the internet. “Di naka-pullout hubby ko, ejaculated inside me. We can’t afford another child. Where can I buy Cytotec na orig?" A good samaritan points her to Quiapo. “But look around first, sis. Bring P1,000-P2,000 because you have to buy pampahilab with Cytotec."

The pampahilab referred to is Methergine, a drug used in hospitals to control the bleeding of the uterus and expel the placenta after a woman gives birth. Like a chaser, Methergine is always sold with Cytotec in Quiapo.

Little guilt is shown in taking the pills, which are simply seen as a means of getting one’s period back after it stops due to fertilization. Never mind what else comes out when the flow comes gushing back.

What to expect when you’re aborting

“Malalaman mo na tapos na ‘pag nakita mo na siya (You will know you have succeeded when you see him)," says Dolores, a vendor whose unnerving calm could crack Hannibal Lecter’s composure. She describes the debris that comes out with the menstrual flow. “Kung one month, parang egg yolk lang ang lalabas. ’Pag two months, ganito na kalaki (If the fetus is one month old, it will look like egg yolk. If it’s two months old, it will be this big)." She holds up a hefty thumb, shaped like a stubby chorizo.

“’Pag nilagay mo ang two months sa platito, buo na (If you put a two-month-old fetus on a small plate, it will already be whole)," Sister Nelia elaborates.

“Hangga’t maari, one month to two months lang (As much as possible, the fetus should only be one to two months old)," warns Dolores. “’Pag three months, tao na siya (At three months, it will already be human)." Past the sixth month of pregnancy, the fetus expelled by Cytotec may already be a mature baby that can survive outside the body.

“Pero ‘pag sa pera, yung iba wala nang buwan na binibilang (But if the price is right, some vendors no longer count the months)," chortles Roger.

Does it hurt? “Wala lang (It’s nothing)," replies Dolores. “Lalabas lang regla mo (Your menstruation will just come out)."

Do you need to take a leave from work? “Hindi na. Pumili ka lang ng oras na relaks ka, tapos uminom ka ng dalawa every six hours (No need. Just choose a time when you are relaxed, then drink two pills every six hours)." Cytotec can also be inserted inside the vagina to speed up the dilation of the cervix.

How will you know it’s working?

“’Pag nag-L.B.M. ka (When you experience diarrhea)," says Roger. “Hindi lahat nag-e-L.B.M. (Not everyone gets diarrhea)," Dolores corrects him coolly. “Antayin mo twelve hours. ‘Pag wala pang nangyayari, mag-text ka. Baka kailangan dagdagan. Depende kasi yan sa lakas ng kapit ng bata (Wait twelve hours. If nothing happens, send a text message. You might need more pills. It all depends how strong the child is, how long it can hang on)." A normal dosage of Cytotec is six pills taken two at a time. Some women take as much as eighteen before they start bleeding. The bleeding usually lasts three or four days, in intermittent spurts.

“The fetus fell into the toilet bowl"

A girl who took the pills while eight weeks pregnant relays her experience on a social networking site. “I took Cytotec orally and inserted vaginally. I started bleeding and felt like peeing and pooing, so I went to the bathroom. My stomach hurt, like I had diarrhea. A big blood clot came out. The fetus fell on the toilet bowl, then the placenta. I wanted to cry but I was happy that my problem was over. I got my original Cytotec from XXXXXXX, 091X-XXXXXXX."

Another girl took the pills on her twentieth week. The trauma was more intense. “I drank four Cytotec and put four in my pussy. I prayed and did the sign of the cross on my bump. I got a fever and started shivering. When I went to the bathroom to urinate, the baby came out of my vagina. It was fully formed, with eyes and feet. I bled and bled for days. I’m sick all the time now. I want to go to the hospital but my parents might find out I had an abortion. Can the doctors tell?"

“Wash your vagina before you go to the OB"

When Cytotec fails to thoroughly expel the fetus and the placenta, body parts and excess tissue are left inside the uterus. Curettage (raspa) in the hospital becomes necessary to prevent infection and septic shock. This malfunction happens so often that tips on how to handle it are common among Cytotec users. “Wash your vagina very well before you go to the OB," instructs one girl, “because they might find traces of Cytotec and not believe you had a normal miscarriage."

Cytotec can also cause the entire uterus to rupture, which can lead to death or permanently damage the reproductive system. Future childbearing becomes impossible. If the pills are unable to induce an abortion (usually because they are fake), and the woman decides to continue her pregnancy, her child may be born with serious mental and physical defects.

But the vendors do not dwell on the negative, maintaining that their customers are satisfied.

“Bumabalik sila (They come back)." Stern Dolores musters a smile. “Nag-a-abroad, pagbalik dito, may pasalubong ka pa (They go abroad, then give us gifts when they come back)."

“Nagbibigay ng prutas at kung ano-ano (They give fruits and all sorts of things)," echoes Roger.

Sacred shock treatment

“Pregnant? Confused? Problems? Handa kaming tumulong (We’re ready to help)," says a poster on the bulletin board at the entrance of the Quiapo Church. The contact numbers of the church’s counseling center are printed underneath. “Did you know?" asks another poster of a blood-spattered fetus stuffed in a bowl, umbilical cord still attached. “This baby was killed by a self-poisoning abortion when his mother was 4 ½ months pregnant."

At high noon on selected days, the video wall outside the church that is used to broadcast masses to the spillover crowd on Plaza Miranda airs ultrasound footage of an eleven-week-old fetus floating happily in its mother’s womb while sucking its thumb. Suddenly, an abortionist’s curette appears, and the fetus frantically tries to evade it. With nowhere to hide, the fetus is ultimately scraped out of the womb in bleeding chunks. Last to go is the head, which is crushed for easy removal. The footage is taken from the 1984 documentary The Silent Scream, spliced with even more graphic video of dismembered fetal limbs, heads, eyeballs, and the voice of a child dramatically pleading for its life in Filipino.

These are just a few of the radical steps Monsignor Jose Clemente Ignacio has taken to squelch the Cytotec trade since he became rector of the Quiapo Church two years ago.

“There is a syndicate operating"

“You know, the Philippine Constitution says the State shall protect the life of the unborn from conception. And the Revised Penal Code says abortion is illegal. The BFAD (Bureau of Food and Drug) says they have already banned this drug. The media, the senators, the congressmen, the mayors have tried to bust the trade. But it’s still there."

So what makes a priest think he can do anything about it?

Pause. “The Cardinal told me it would be a difficult assignment." Tough-minded “Father Clem" was handpicked for the cleansing of the temple.

He pulls up some data on his computer screen. “According to a 2008 study done by the Guttmacher Institute and UP Population Institute, half of the 3.4 million pregnancies in the Philippines were unintended, and there were 560,000 cases of induced abortion. That’s 1,534 attempted murders of babies per day, or one baby per minute. This is worse than the deaths caused by terrorism."

He grabs a calculator. “Quiapo is the distribution center of Cytotec in the Philippines. The average price here is P1,000 for six pieces of Cytotec. If this is the minimum amount for the first stage of abortion, and we multiply this with 560,000, this is equal to P560 million. Being the distribution hub, this is big business for Quiapo. There is a syndicate, an organized market operating."

Why Quiapo? “A lot of people come here because of the Nazareno. It’s the busiest church in the Philippines."

He clicks another slide. “Most of the sellers are the herbal vendors. But since the police started catching them, they’ve changed tactics. Now, they are soliciting verbally. Even vendors of religious articles might be selling Cytotec."

Feeding the trade is a highly profitable protection racket. “Plaza Miranda policemen are offered vague bribes by vendors. When this doesn’t succeed, threats are used. Media, political relations. Here in the church, we have received bomb threats."

Police connection

A top target of threats, and the focus of an ongoing smear campaign in the tabloids, is the new police captain who was assigned to Plaza Miranda three months ago and has been working closely with Monsignor Ignacio. “If Captain Samoranos is being persecuted, it means he is doing a good job," says the priest, flipping through a folder of tabloid clippings lambasting Samoranos.

Out comes the calculator. “When a policeman or barangay official is assigned here, there is a very strong temptation to collect from the vendors. In Plaza Miranda alone, I counted about 1,000 vendors. Assume the minimum is P30 of kotong (bribe) per vendor everyday. P30 x 1,000 is P30,000. You multiply that by thirty days. P900,000 in one month. Multiply that by twelve months. [P10,800,000.] That’s just one collector. You can see it’s a multi-million-peso business. Cytotec is just one. Count how many vendors there are in the whole Quiapo. Even sampaguita vendors are paying collectors just to be able to operate."

No law in the land

Kinks in the law do not help. At his outpost overlooking Plaza Miranda, Captain Samoranos explains that a Cytotec vendor needs to be caught in the act to be arrested, and can only be detained for twelve hours. For charges to be filed, the BFAD needs to certify that the drugs confiscated are indeed Cytotec. This takes around two months, by which time the twelve-hour detention period has long expired. “Isa lang magiging rekomendasyon ng piskal diyan-—release (The fiscal will have only one recommendation—-release)."

Even if a case is filed, Captain Samoranos says the only charge that can be slapped is selling drugs without a license or prescription. Under the Pharmacy Law (Republic Act 5921), this is punishable only by a fine of P1,000 to P4,000, or imprisonment of six months to four years.

Monsignor Igancio shows a letter he wrote Senator Miriam Santiago asking for a law making the sale of abortion pills a crime of solicitation to commit murder. “That would make it non-bailable."

Church vs. State, Coke vs. Sprite

Monsignor Ignacio agrees that the demand for abortion pills exists because there are too many unwanted pregnancies. But are there too many unwanted pregnancies because there is too little knowledge about contraception?

“My best friend drinks Cortal with Sprite after she and her bf (boyfriend) have sex. She never gets pregnant,“ blogs sabsganda. “Coke, dear, not Sprite," biboysmom clarifies. “I take Cytotec right away when I’m delayed. Nagkakaroon ako kaagad (I get my period immediately)," shares brownsugahbeyb. “Ikaw ha, bad ka, my husband bought that, that’s for abortion," chides ludettski. “Stork with Red Horse is more effective." (Cortal is a brand of fever medicine. Stork is a menthol candy brand. Red Horse is a beer brand.)

“Unwanted pregnancies cause illegal abortions, that’s a fact," says Monsignor Ignacio. “But are we now supposed to promote contraceptives? Contraceptives will produce more abortions. Contraceptives will create a [culture of irresponsibility and selfishness]. The more people engage in selfish sex acts, the more you produce unwanted pregnancies, because contraceptives are not 100% [foolproof]."

(Not that anyone needs another recap, but here’s the gist of the birth control debate: The Roman Catholic Church supports family planning, but only through natural means such as the withdrawal method and the Billings method. Advocates of artificial contraception in government and the medical community say this is unrealistic, because most people do not have the high degree of discipline and clockwork ovulation necessary to make natural family planning work.)

More sex = more abortions?

If women who use contraception have more sex, do they also have more abortions? Data from the 2008 report of the Guttmacher Institute and the UP Population Institute shows only 11% of the women who induced abortion were using artificial contraception when they conceived. Majority or 54% were not using any birth control method, while 35% were using natural family planning. The same study lists the chances of getting pregnant while using different contraceptive methods: 2% for IUDs (intra-uterine devices), 3% for injectables, 7% for birth control pills, 13% for condoms, 26% for withdrawal.

But the Church is immovable. “Sometimes we get into something because we think it’s a good tool," says Monsignor Ignacio. “What we don’t know is there’s a whole culture behind that tool. Like computers. It can facilitate things, but there are dangers. Computers are now also being used to pollute the minds of the young, for the sex trade, for terrorism. There’s a whole world behind the tool."

The Reproductive Health Bill being debated in Congress promotes both natural and artificial contraception. The Church is flatly opposed to it. The bill says, “Abortion remains a crime".

Abortion is the one thing the Church and the lawmakers actually agree on. This can’t be good news for Cytotec vendors.

Money before religion

But out on the streets of Quiapo, there is little interest in ideological debates. Abortion is strictly business.

“Kung ibibili kami ng pagkain ng pari diyan, hindi na kami maghahanap-buhay (If the priest buys food for us, we will no longer have to earn a living)," says Roger, he of the Black Nazarene tattoo. “Yung mga abuloy diyan, hatian niya kami rito (He should split the church donations with us)."

Another vendor, Sally, whose T-shirt says Patawarin Mo Po Sila, Hesus Nazareno (Please Forgive Them, Jesus of Nazareth), is more pragmatic. “Kung gusto nila pigilan ang pagtinda, bigyan nila ng kapalit, ng suporta (If they want the selling to stop, they should give alternatives and support)."

The profits from selling abortion pills are hard to top. Per transaction, vendors sell an average of six pieces of Cytotec at P150 each and ten pieces of Methergine at P50 each. The average transaction is thus worth P1,400. (Of this amount, a source says the mark-up is as much as P1,000. But this is difficult to verify.)

That’s the supply side of the curve. On the demand side, economics also trumps ideology—-72% of the women who attempt abortion in the Philippines (87% of whom claim to be Catholic) cite financial reasons for not wanting to raise a new child, according to the 2008 study of the Guttmacher Institute and UP Population Institute. More than half (57%) are mothers who already have three or more children, and don’t want another one.

Do vendors use Cytotec?

Even within the vendors’ personal lives, economics determines whether or not a child will live or die by Cytotec.

Nini, over six months pregnant but still peddling abortion pills, is obviously in favor of having children, but only because she can afford it. “Kung walang tutulong sayo, gawan mo ng paraan hangga’t meron pa (If no one will help you raise the child, do something about it while there’s still time)" is her outlook.

Roger asked his own daughter to take Cytotec when she got pregnant. She had just graduated from college, and he had already borrowed P130,000 to pay a recruitment agency so she could work abroad. She chose to stay and keep the baby. He was furious, but he let her marry her boyfriend. “Civil engineer, e. Dose ang sahod. Umaabot ng kinse kasama allowance (He’s a civil engineer. His salary is P12,000. It goes up to P15,000 with allowances)." Had the guy been jobless, what would he have told his daughter? “‘Uminom ka! Tapos ituro mo sa akin, papatayin ko ang putang ina!’ (‘Drink [Cytotec]! Then point him to me, I’ll kill the sonofabitch!’)"

Illegal means profitable

What if, just if, pigs could suddenly fly and the BFAD lifted restrictions on Cytotec?

The vendors are surprisingly ambivalent. Operating underground is more profitable, they say, because they are not subject to the same capital and regulatory requirements as real drugstores, and they can undercut pricing easily.

Astute Dolores cunningly points out that Cytotec is becoming more popular because of constant news coverage. She notes that the fastest way to make people want something is to ban it. “Tsaka nagkakaroon ng ibang intensiyon ang iba (And some people acquire unusual intentions)," she adds, alluding to the tendency of persons in power to exploit the illegality of a trade to extort protection money.

Monsignor Ignacio calls their business “selling weapons to kill unborn children". Do they feel any guilt at all? “Wala (None)," they chorus. “Marami nga kaming natutulungan, e (In fact, we are able to help a lot of people)," says Sally. “Sila ang lumalapit, nakaupo lang ang mga tindera (The customers are the ones who come, the vendors are just seated)," says Roger.

Mercifully, there is one exception. “Ako, ang tawag ko sa Cytotec na yan, salot (Me, I call Cytotec poison)" sniffs reformed Sister Nelia. “Kung wala yan, napakaganda sana ng hanapbuhay namin sa herbal (If not for that, we would have a good livelihood selling herbal cures)." She wags her finger in the air. “Pinapangaralan ko sila. Napakabigat na kasalanan niyan, sabi ko. Tayo hindi permanente sa lupa. Pagbabayaran niyo yan, ‘ka ko (I lecture [the other vendors]. What you are doing is a big sin, I say. We will not always be in this world. You will pay for what you have done)."

As she saunters away in a righteous huff, a policeman leans over and murmurs, “’Yan, kaaalok lang niyan ng P1,000 per week nung isang araw (That one, she just offered P1,000 per week [of protection money] the other day)."

The economics of abortion

Economic theory presupposes that human beings are rational, making choices by weighing costs against benefits. On the supply side, Cytotec vendors see that the financial benefits of breaking the law far outweigh the costs, because, as it turns out, there is no law. On the demand side, the women contemplating abortion are faced with a lose-lose situation, but think they have less to lose by sacrificing an unborn child than absorbing another financial burden they can ill afford.

Quiapo’s parish priest and the Plaza Miranda police have made moves to choke off supply. What will the congressmen and senators do to curb demand? As the arguments continue over condoms and pills, the barbarians are at the gate and one baby has died per minute that you have been reading this story.

Note: Names of vendors and women’s web aliases have been changed. Web comments have been paraphrased for brevity. The 2008 report of the Guttmacher Institute and University of the Philippines Population Institute cited several times in this story was written by Susheela Singh, Haley Ball, Rubina Hussain and Jennifer Nadeau, of the Guttmacher Institute; Fatima Juarez, Centre for Demographic, Urban and Environmental Studies, El Colegio de México, and independent consultant; and Josefina Cabigon, University of the Philippines Population Institute.

(This story was originally published on GMANews.TV on October 18, 2009. Photos by Howie Severino and Miranda Angeles.)