Matung (Abortion), Moral Claims and the T’boli Woman Or More Questions Thereof



“The T’boli have no compunction performing matung or abortion. A woman resorts to abortion for various reasons, such as: her husband has abandoned her and refuses to give support; she has more children than can be fed adequately; her honor has been stained; she merely wants to be spared the difficulties of delivery. The woman goes to the tao matunga or abortionist who gives her concoctions. Failure of the latter usually results in drastic measures such as mutilation or walking around with heavy stones tied to the womb. The extreme abortion technique is suicide.”[1]

Our oftentimes “civilized” (or whatever we think of being “civil” is, i.e. Judeo-Christian, mainland/lowland/colonized Filipino) sensibilities become uneasy when subjected to concepts and ideas far from our own zone of comfortable familiars – a culture shock. One that lifts us by the collars and shakes the few cubic centimeters of our brain. When travelling in an unfamiliar country, for example, we are bombarded by languages, values, beliefs, gestures or fashion completely different and at times diametrically opposite ours. A nod may mean “no” when it means “yes” for us. But we let it by. Gradually we overcome the sense of culture shock, we start speaking their language, we don their fashion, and a nod eventually becomes a “no”. We gradually get to grasp societal norms, those prescribed behaviors that are considered “proper and fitting”, “appropriate” or “recommended” in given situations.

Yet this is not the case when we are confronted by alien and foreign mores. We do not easily conform to other people’s mores when faced with dilemmas of moral dimension – that is, norms that demand action in accordance with the ideal vision and goal of a society, judged as either “right or wrong”, “good or bad”,  and are “morally binding and obligatory”.  Moral norms, more specifically, ethico-religious norms, are not easily replaced, superseded nor transplanted as easily as societal norms. They stem from something much more adamant, indelible and deep-rooted as religion, ideology, worldview, dogma or revelation – all these, in one way or another, are elements of culture.

The study of ethics then is not in the sole domain of Philosophy.  Anthropology has much to offer in the study of the dynamics played by the elements of culture and in explaining  how a given society develops and maintains standards of morals and prescribed behaviors. There are many approaches that we can use to study this dynamics, but one approach that might be applicable (and also interesting) in the study of anthropology is to use feminist anthropology in the discourse of moral claims, relativism and gender. The most obvious reason is that this approach gives importance to the most basic difference in the human species, that of sex.

The marked delineation and interaction of the sexes in any society must be one of the fundamental bases or strands on any culture’s webs of significance. Many anthropologists have suggested and shared many different things that make up these webs of significance that shape culture – language, environment or energy conservation to name some. But the difference in sex and gender stratification, I believe must be fundamental, if not, central to how culture is and how cultures become.

We may even be right when we assume that the recognition of the differences in sex (male or female) develops in human babies first before we even recognize between right and wrong, or moral standards.  If the assumption is proved correct, then differences in sex and gender (i.e. roles and social expectations/behaviors) informs every aspect of social life, even morals, by its primacy and centrality in our being human. We can go further and ask: are moral claims relative to sex? Is it possible that a woman’s “right”, is a man’s “wrong”?

Is it right to assume that there is moral relativism between the genders [which is also cultural], that moral judgments are subjective and also sex-oriented? A toy gun, for instance, is good (appropriate) for a boy but bad for a girl, but a doll is bad for a boy yet good for a girl or it is alright for a man to date several women, but a woman who dates several men is a flirt. A double standard in gender, a symptom of moral relativism. It all depends on your sex, or in my example, gender. Feminists would argue that the sex who has the upper hand in the society decides and controls what the moral standards of that society are. A patriarchal society (e.g. Taliban-Afghanistan) have moral standards decided and controlled by men, hence the suppression of women’s claim to what is moral. A power play between the sexes.

We can take as an example, the moral dimensions of the T’boli people’s matung or abortion to further deepen this assertion.

The T’boli women, at least as shown in early ethnographies, practice abortion. A hotly debated issue in ethics is whether this is a practice in the freedom of choice or an act of murder (infanticide), the right to choose versus the fetus’s right to live. This may be contentious because we have to ask, do the T’boli believe that fetuses already have a life? Yet we see an acceptance to the open practice of abortion in T’boli [early?] society. The article actually mentions the phrase “without compunction”, which means that without any regret they will resort to abortion. If the ethnographies upon which the Cultural Center of the Philippines Almanac based its report, are accurate, matung is thus an act out of necessity but categorically noted as a resortor an alternative if other measures fail.

We have to list down some of the reasons that are socially acceptable for abortion: “her husband has abandoned her and refuses to give support; she has more children than can be fed adequately; her honor has been stained; she merely wants to be spared the difficulties of delivery.” We can map these reasons and the key decision-makers as follows:

Reasons Woman Man Family/Society
Her husband has abandoned her and refuses to give support;  X  X
She has more children than can be fed adequately;  X  X
Her honor has been stained;  X  X  X
She merely wants to be spared the difficulties of delivery;  X

The third reason is a little more complicated. We can specify it further as:

The woman was raped;  X  X
The woman committed adultery[1];  X  X

The tables above, although merely a sketch, nevertheless show a significant role of the woman in deciding for an abortion. The woman has [albeit not full] control over her body. She can decide if she wants an abortion or not. The tables also show that a T’boli woman’s moral claims to abortion are pragmatic, almost gearing towards the amoral, and not founded on any religious belief but on desperate economic or social reasons.

T’boli society also accepts [or tolerates?] the practice which suggests that among the “non-negotiables” of the society, maintaining social cohesion and family honor are primary. This can be averred by how T’boli society is included as a key element in the decision-making for abortion, which leads us to assume how society reacts and stigmatizes abandoned wives, families that cannot support their children, or children out of wedlock. Adulterous women too have been known to be killed on the spot as was the case of Ye’Dadang in one of their songs, a married woman hacked to pieces by her husband when he caught her and her lover[3].

We come back to our earlier assertion that men’s moral decisions may differ from that of women’s even if there are philosophical claims [Kantian Categorical Imperative] to the universality of morality. Men do not get pregnant and men do not suffer the pains of pregnancy and childbirth. Decisions and moral claims are thus dictated by the most fundamental difference of the sexes. A man may see it as immoral to kill an unborn child, but a woman may believe that it is more immoral to have a child and not to be able to feed it, or the man just leaves the decision to the woman. Yet we still have to ask ourselves: is it really the woman deciding or are her options already dictated and limited by the norms of her society?

Matung is a cultural phenomenon that seemingly floats above a highly patriarchal society. Feminists argue that societies practicing polygamy, patrilocation, bride wealth, dowry and child marriage, like the T’boli, are patriarchal. On the one hand, a woman has control over her body [at least with abortion] yet her decisions, based on social norms and mores in the level of the family and the tribe, are still mostly made and controlled by men.While the seemingly lax moral standards in the practice of abortion may sound like “women empowerment” in the language of feminists, it still exists within the larger context of a power struggle between males and females. Deeply-held morality is but among the precipitations of this male-female struggle. 

The outsider’s initial culture shock when confronted by the matung may be cured when he reads the tabloids or visits the back alleys of his city. Although considered a criminal offense under our penal code, abortions are happening at a staggering rate. These very codes and laws are themselves the battleground of the male-female dichotomy.

The city woman no longer suffers by “walking around with heavy stones tied to the womb,” but a swift, and still almost certainly, dangerous operation.  As opposed to the T’boli woman, in which the process is socially accepted and sometimes recommended, these women do it in the safety of darkness – where only the dark eye of guilt looks on unblinking.

[1] Cultural Center of the Philippines, Volume II of Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, People of the Philippines, Kalinga to Yakan (Manila: CCP Special Publications Office, 1994), 397.

[2] This needs more ethnographic data as we do not know if the woman who has committed adultery will voluntarily ask for an abortion or if T’boli norms will compel her to have one.

[3] Cultural Center of the Philippines, 400.


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