Philippines Population Efforts Raise Hackles

NEW birth control ads on television have added controversy to the ongoing battle here in the Philippines over an extensive government-sponsored program to limit population growth in order to spur economic development.

The administration of President Fidel Ramos has made population control a cornerstone of efforts to industrialize the country under its ``Philippines 2000'' plan. The Philippines has the highest population growth rate in Southeast Asia.

``How do we balance our resources?'' asks Secretary of Health Juan Flavier. ``We're growing 2.4 percent annually and our growth in food has been 1 percent over the past two years.'' The national Department of Health is sponsoring the ads, which show ordinary Filipinos explaining to viewers why they choose family planning.

The Ramos administration intensified population control efforts by appointing Mr. Flavier to the Cabinet. The controversial doctor is known for his outspoken support for family planning. He has launched media campaigns and pumped up distribution of birth control devices at government health clinics.

Catholic church officials criticize the ads and the population program as a further sign of ``demographic imperialism'' manipulated by the United States. The problem is not overpopulation, argues church spokesman Rev. Delphine Felipe, but inequitable distribution of wealth between rich and poor nations.

The Catholic church has long opposed artificial birth control, arguing that such methods violate God's law by artificially blocking pregnancy. But public opinion polls show a majority of Catholics disagree. Now church leaders have added new economic arguments borrowed from third world nationalists of the 1960s. Fr. Felipe argues that the US provides financing for population control programs to maintain its superpower domination over third world economic resources.

``The US economy consumes 66 percent of the world's resources, [while the US is] 6 percent of the world's population,'' he says. The US - as well as Europe and Japan - need the resources of the third world. Leaders in those countries worry that people in the third world will ``start claiming a larger share of their own resources, diminishing the level of first world access.''

Flavier acknowledges that much of the program funding comes from the US government and foundations. But he bristles at the charge of demographic imperialism. ``I call it imperialism if the outsider calls the shots,'' he says. ``But when I form the program and invite anyone to help it, I don't think it's that way.''

Voluntarily limiting population growth is a key to Philippine economic development, says Patrick Coleman, of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, who is currently working for the Philippine Department of Health. ``Government officials believe population is intertwined with sustainable development,'' he says. ``This regime is committed to improving the quality of life.''

Electronic news media will play an active role in population programs, Mr. Coleman says. The Philippines has sophisticated film, TV, and radio industries that have tremendous impact on popular opinion. Filipinos ``want to see people they like - stars, entertainers - but also ordinary people.'' Vox populi commercials form the basis for the current ad campaign. Six ordinary people face the camera and explain in very practical terms why they advocate family planning. ``If we bear children in succession,'' says Myrna Alpuerto in one ad, ``we would be dowdy early in life.''

Coleman says the ad campaign is so successful that the government now plans to develop commercial films and TV programs with family planning themes. ``We're trying to come up with a concept'' for a TV sitcom ``that won't be too heavy handed,'' he says. ``The messages will be subtle and worked into the plot.''

Felipe criticizes the ads and other media efforts as misleading and one-sided. ``The media overwhelms people and hides the alternatives,'' he says. At the same time, he admits that church leaders must intensify their own media efforts. ``The church is behind in pastoral technology,'' he says.

At the Jose Fabella Health clinic in Manila, arguments about media strategy and long-term economic development seem remote. Anna Vicente says another kind of economics drove her to seek birth control pills. ``My husband is only a taxi driver,'' she says. ``We can't afford to have three or four children.''

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