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More Filipinos question birth-control taboo

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

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"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.

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"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.