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.

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."

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.

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.

The church reaches deep into the psyche and social lives of many Filipinos and its leaders played a crucial role in mobilizing the "people power" movements that toppled presidents Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, who was succeeded by Aqunio's mother Corazon, and Joseph Estrada in 2001.

What do the voters want?

Still, an increasing number have begun to bemoan the lack of clear demarcation between church and state that has handed political clout to clergymen.

"Our Bishops are very ideologically driven. They see the Philippines as the bastion of Catholicism, clinging to its dogma even when the rest of the Catholic world has moved on," says Junice Demeterio-Melgar of Likhaan – a womens' rights group which provides free contraception in poor areas of Manila, including Tondo.

"They see at as their duty and right to interfere in politics," she says.

Aquino, a practicing Catholic who enjoys high approval ratings after a landslide election victory in May, is well placed to push the legislation forward.

"In saying he will not be dictated to by the Church hierarchy, the president is giving himself a chance to break from a past that has debilitated all former presidencies," says Professor Ronald Holmes, head of the PulseAsia think-tank.

Pro-bill legislators say they have enough support in Congress to pass the bill and that the groundswell of civil society groups are onside.

"This will be a feather in the cap for Aquino's administration and economic growth and poverty alleviation will be achievable." says, the bill's author Representative Edcel Lagman.

What about the influence of the Church?

There are signs the church may have overplayed its hand.

Hastily retracted remarks that Aquino – the son of two Philippine democracy icons – could be excommunicated over the bill brought widespread condemnation.

Others say the nation is more pragmatic than the doctrinaire clerics believe.

"There has been an unthinking, instinctive response to this by elements of the Catholic Church hierarchy," adds Professor Holmes.

A PulseAsia survey last year found that despite over 80 percent of the population describing themselves as Catholics, 6 out of 10 respondents backed the bill.

"The policy debate needs to be driven by Aquino and not by emotion or deference to the Church – after all this is supposed to be a secular, independent state," says Holmes.

According to a recent study by the New York-based Guttmacher Institute each year there are around 500,000 abortions carried out illegally across the Philippines and more than 1.6 million unplanned pregnancies, posing great health risks to women. If the bill is again stymied slums such as Tondo will expand, warns Dr. Demeterio-Melger.

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