Resisting Religious Repression through Memory, Medicine, and Movements

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Interview with Dr. Michael Tan

Dr. Michael Tan, a Philippine medical anthropologist, shares his informative and unadulterated critique of the religious hierarchy. Albeit pockets of resistance exist even within communities of faithful, the Roman Catholic Church has effectively wielded its powers to control sex and sexuality for couples, especially on women in the Philippines and beyond. This, notwithstanding lessons from history, scientifically-proven facts, and medical ethics and even human nature itself

Women in Action (WIA): Are there historical accounts on abortion in pre-colonial societies?

Michael Tan (MT): Definitely. It is not surprising because in hunting and food-gathering societies, people practised abortion and infanticide to regulate fertility.

It was only in agricutural societies when abortion began to acquire a stigma. Agricultural societies wanted bigger families.

Abortion existed in all societies in the era before we had medical abortion. It was practised for the longest time simply because it was the only available form of family planning. People recognised the need to restrict the number of children because they had to move from one place to another and they had to feed the children.

In hunting-gathering societies, whenever people moved, the older people asked to be left behind. It was because they felt they would be a burden.

WIA: How would you describe the relationship between the human rights perspective and a medical perspective on abortion?

MT: They overlap. I know doctors who say that they do not believe in abortion. But they also recognise that it might be a patient's right. Some doctors perform abortion because they believe it is their duty as doctors to respond to patients' rights. And they consider patient's rights to be part of human rights.

Much of the discussion on rights now revolves around the idea of autonomy such as the individual's right to choose.

WIA: How would you describe the relationship of medicine and religion on the issue of abortion?

MT: Before Roe v Wade, abortion was illegal in the United States. But there was an active underground railway, a system of getting women to places where doctors were willing to perform an abortion.

Among the most active people in this underground system were the religious, such as Catholic and Protestant priests and ministers who believed that it was part of their ministry, of their work for social justice to get women their abortion services.

Thus, the link between medicine and religion, between abortion and religion is very, very strong. Unfortunately, what we hear now is a very cold and callous hierarchy that condemns women for abortion. But if more women and more doctors tell their stories about abortion, people might become more understanding.

WIA: What can you say about abortion in the Phillippine context?

MT: We are in a dilemma because there is a conservative Catholic hierarchy which does not want abortion but is also opposed to family planning which can prevent abortion. We are in a Catch-22 situation.


In the Philippines, legally you cannot get an abortion even for health reasons, not even when the mother's life is in danger. We are one of four countries in the world where abortion is not allowed under any circumstance. There are some people who say abortion can be performed in such cases.

From a clinical viewpoint, depriving a woman of abortion, particularly if her health is in danger, violates her right to health and survival.

WIA: How about cases of rape?

MT: Bawal din sa atin [That is also illegal here]. Some people say that a woman has the right to abortion when she does not want to bear the child of a rapist. But the Catholic Church disagrees. You see it very clearly in the Vatican's recent moves. …