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Herbert Docena was a research associate with Focus on the Global South, an international research and advocacy organization. He is working for his doctorate in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.
As debate over the Reproductive Health bill intensifies, it becomes more difficult to contemplate one fundamental premise that many from both sides actually share: that there are too many of us around.
In his SONA last week, President Aquino championed "planned parenthood" as a solution to the country's shortage of classrooms, which he implies is caused by having to cope with too many schoolchildren. Many Church leaders do not believe we're "overpopulated", only that we have an "overconcentration" of people in urban areas. There are too many people, but only in our cities.
This broader point of unity is easy to take for granted: Any worker who has ever had to jostle for air inside the MRT, any landlord who has ever had to evict "squatters," and any taxpayer who has ever had to pay for overstretched public services - all will likely agree with the "common sense" view that there is an excess of people in our country, or at least in our urban areas, and it's a problem.
But is "overpopulation" - or "overconcentration of population" - really the self-evident fact that many take it to be?
To be sure, the Philippines' current population size of around 90 million (or greater Manila's 20 million) seems startling in absolute terms.
But to say that a certain quantity is "excessive" only ever makes sense in relative terms: relative, that is, to our judgments of what the "right", "normal" or "desirable" quantity should be. Hence, one can only say that a cup of coffee has "too much" sugar with reference to what one considers to be the right amount of sweetness. To say that there are too many pie-eaters only has meaning with reference to our sense of how large the pie is, or how large each slice should be.
What should be the "normal" population size for the Philippines? 80 million? 10 million? Or just anywhere below 90 million?
Both proponents and opponents, so far as I have gathered, leave their answers to this profoundly normative question implicit, but I presume that many will probably hold that the optimal population size is that which the country's existing resources can support: that is, whatever population level allows us to, one, meet the needs of every person to live a decent life (the size of his or her slice of the pie) given, two, how much resources we currently have or can expect to have (the total size of the pie and its expected rate of growth).
Estimating both, however, immediately raises more questions, requiring answers that are not necessarily "common-sensical".
On the first quantity: maybe we can readily agree that every family needs a kilo of rice a day - but does every family really need 6,000 hectares of land? Gandhi once insisted that "The earth has enough for everyone's needs but not everyone's greed." But what constitutes legitimate "needs" and what counts for "greed"? How much is too much, how little is too little?
Arriving at the value of available resources is no less fraught: Do we largely take the existing distribution of resources for granted - just assume that, say, the richest landlords will continue to control most of the country’s lands, the mining or logging companies will continue to dispose of most of our minerals or wood as they see fit, factory owners will continue to pay the least they can to workers, politicians will continue to fritter off tax revenues - and thus count only as "available" resources those that they deign to make available for everyone else?
This would presumably lead to a lower optimal population than an alternative assumption: adding up all the available resources in the country - all the land, the trees, the minerals, all the assets in the banks - and assuming that they can or should be shared more democratically through social and government action.
Whichever assumptions we use shape our attitude towards our population: Whether we think the pie is small or can be enlarged - whether we believe we should fight for a larger share or settle for crumbs -influences whether we think there's too many of us scrambling for a piece of the pie.
In short, determining whether or not we have an "overpopulation" or "overconcentration" problem is not just a matter of counting people, but of imagining different counter-factuals and taking a position on a series of complex social questions.
And this may be why the RH bill debate has become more than just a debate about women's rights or abortion. Like all great public controversies, it has forced us to confront much larger political, cultural, and moral questions: about what is realistic or not realistic, what counts for a "good life", and what constitutes a "good society". What is ultimately at stake with the RH bill is now arguably no longer just whether women get access to birth control pills, but also which of different answers to these questions get entrenched or institutionalized as taken-for-granted beliefs - as "common sense".
To speak of the RH bill in the context of solving classroom shortages instead of so many other possible contexts, for example, is to propagate a neo-Malthusian position that blames "overpopulation" - not extreme indebtedness, not class exploitation, not corruption - as the more, if not most, important, reason for our squalor. To assume that our share of the pie can no longer be enlarged and that we should just settle for crumbs, as many of those who warn against "overpopulation" do, is to reinforce the "common-sense" view that the present dispensation is the best we can possibly hope for.
Which of these ways of thinking gets ingrained in our collective consciousness as a result of this debate will have broader and longer-term material consequences because - to the extent that it shapes how we look at and act upon the social order - what counts as "common sense" also shapes the prospects for maintaining or transforming it.
In this light, determining how best to secure the RH bill's goals cannot be dissociated from the kinds of discourse that are used to win its passage.
Framing the RH bill as a measure to allow women sovereignty over their lives and to guarantee their reproductive health rights, for example, may seem like a bad strategy for advancing the pro-RH cause because it galvanizes the conservative opposition. But insisting on changing the conversation and the terms of the debate now may ultimately help foster broader cultural and institutional change favoring women. Framing it as an "anti-poverty" measure in response to "overpopulation", on the other hand, may seem like a winning strategy: it could secure the crucial support of socially liberal but economically conservative constituencies. But if this bolsters the "common-sense" view that the poor are to be blamed for their own destitution and that the most we could ever ask for is a larger share of the crumbs, then it may also make it even more difficult to push for more reformist and redistributive futures.
How the RH bill is passed may matter just as much as whether it is passed.