More Filipinos question birth-control taboo

A bill to provide contraception is the first to reach House debate in this largely Roman Catholic country.

By , Correspondent

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    Social impact: Children at a dump in Manila Bay. Backers of the reproductive health bill say it would curb poverty.
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The battle over a ground-breaking reproductive health bill is heating up in the Philippines, a country where the influential Roman Catholic Church's opposition to artificial birth control has long held sway.

A measure to provide government-funded family planning, contraceptives, and sex education has made its way onto the House floor for debate – the furthest any such draft legislation has ever reached.

The bill's passage isn't certain. But proponents say its traction so far shows that the political clout of the Roman Catholic Church is on the wane.

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"The influence of the Catholic Church has steadily weakened, just like in other countries," says Congressman Edcel Lagman, the bill's key House sponsor, in a phone interview. "People are now more independent in their attitudes and their beliefs, and the ultraconservatism of the church doesn't jibe with the progressive ideas of the people."

Backers of the bill say it's needed to prevent illegal abortions and help curb poverty by addressing overpopulation. But the church sees artificial birth control as immoral and has long prevented any efforts to provide government funding for such methods. It only supports "natural" birth control, such as the "rhythm method," by which women avoid having sex on the most fertile days of their monthly cycle.

The church's allies warn that the bill could be a first step toward the legalization of abortion. A small group of them is holding up the bill in questioning on the House floor. Mr. Lagman and other sponsors hope to clear that hurdle when Congress comes back from break in mid-April.

About 81 percent of the Philippines' 96 million people are Catholics. In theory, they're bound to obey church leaders' authority. But a Pulse Asia poll conducted last fall found that 63 percent support the reproductive health bill, with 8 percent opposing (the rest were undecided).

In the Philippines, the church has long had its way on issues by threatening to withdraw electoral support from candidates. But now, politicians and Catholic laypeople are increasingly willing to buck the church leadership.

"The fact that this bill has gotten so much momentum indicates that politicians are no longer scared by the church's threats," says Ramon San Pascual, director of the Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development Foundation, Inc. "Some cultural change is taking place."

The bill received support from a surprising quarter last fall: 69 professors at the prestigious Roman Catholic Ateneo de Manila University broke with their own church to sign an unusual open letter backing the legislation.

In an interview in December, two of the professors said the bill would put the Philippines in line with other predominantly Roman Catholic countries, including Italy, Ireland, and Mexico.

"We're the last Catholic country that hasn't allowed contraceptives and family planning of all kinds, systematically," said Mary Racelis, who is in the department of sociology and anthropology.

"What's happening in our country is that women go for abortions because they don't have access to forms of contraception," added Marita Castro Guevara, from the department of interdisciplinary studies.

The bill's proponents cite data showing that as many as 500,000 women have induced abortions in the Philippines each year, with some 80,000 going to the hospital due to complications. They say the bill would reduce abortions by providing better access to family planning resources.

Similar efforts at a more progressive, national family-planning policy have been tried since the early 1990s. But this time, activists have garnered far broader support from "stakeholders," says Mr. San Pascual. For example, industry groups such as the Employers Confederation of the Philippines are now key backers. "They see their employees having many children affecting productivity in the workplace, and exacting heavy costs," San Pascual says.

And the timing is better. Last year, the bill was one of many sidelined by all-consuming impeachment motions against President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. For now, all's quiet on that front.

Still, the church leadership isn't about to give in without a fight. In an interview last month with the Philippines Information Agency, Father Amadeo Alvero, media coordinator of the Archdiocese of Palo, dismissed poll results on the bill. "Even if 99 percent of the Filipinos would say that they are supporting the RH [Reproductive Health] Bill, the truth of the evil of the RH Bill cannot be changed," he said.

Although the bill doesn't fund abortion, its opponents are pushing a "slippery slope" argument. Last month, former Sen. Francisco Tatad argued that many developing countries that legalized abortion started by funding and promoting artificial contraception, the Philippine Star reported.

Last month, church bishops' representatives walked out of a Senate working-group discussion on the bill and said they wouldn't join further talks.

Angel Lagdameo, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, declined, through an assistant, the Monitor's request for comment.

If the bill passes both houses, it would go to the desk of President Macapagal-Arroyo. Observers say they expect her to let it "lapse" into law, neither signing nor vetoing it. The president, herself a Roman Catholic, has said she has used birth control pills in the past – and later went to church confession about it. But as president, she's publicly toed the church's line on the issue, supporting "natural" family planning.

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