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In the Philippines, church and state row over family planning

In the Philippines, where the intersection between faith and politics has long shaped the country's development, the debate surrounding a family planning bill is pitting the president of the country against the influential Catholic Church.

By Aidan JonesCorrespondent / November 12, 2010

Manila, Philippines

Marilon Zoleta, in her early 30s, did not plan to have six children already. But as she explains it, "I could not afford contraception, and I would rather buy food and clothes for my children than condoms."

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Living in a worn, overcrowded block of "temporary" housing in Tondo, a wedge of rusty shacks home to 22,000 people, Marilon voices no regret over her family but admits that the extra mouths have strained their meager income. It has made it all but unthinkable to move their family to a cleaner, safer, neighborhood, she says.

Tondo, encircling Manila's vast, fetid Vitas rubbish dump, is home to thousands of poor families like the Zoletas, who depend on a combination of state handout, contract work, or tips from scavenged recyclables.

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It is in poor communities like this that a Reproductive Health Bill currently before the Philippines Congress is aimed. In a nation where the intersection between faith and politics has long shaped the development of the Philippines, the debate surrounding the bill is pitting the president of the country against the influential Catholic Church.

If the bill becomes law, it will give responsibility for family planning to the state. Part of that would include the distribution of free contraception for the poor, maternity care, and family planning. It would also break new ground for the relationship between the government and the Church.

Supporters of the bill see it as common sense legislation that will help rein in the runaway population, projected to reach 94 million by the end of this year, and better equip President Benigno Aquino's administration to tackle poverty and meet its UN development targets for a country where it is estimated that more than 30 percent of citizens live below the poverty line.

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, views the bill as an attack on life, Catholic values, and as a gateway to legalizing abortion.

"Poverty cannot be solved by promoting contraception," says Bishop Nereo Odchimar president of the influential Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, adding that the promotion of "a contraceptive mentality is immoral" and against church doctrine. The Church favours natural methods of contraception, including abstinence, and says the use of condoms encourages promiscuity and a rise in abortion cases.

"Moreover, it is our belief that the causes of poverty are complex," says Bishop Odchimar. He says that more attentions should be focused on routing out corruption and poor government for the "social injustice" that dogs the Philippines.

The church lobby has blocked the bill for more than 14 years and, according to one senior Bishop, is gearing for a "head-on collision" with Aquino, who says the state, not the church, should help couples choose when to have children.


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