A Birth Control Battle Looms in Manila

There is no subject like sex to prove beyond doubt the extent of the Catholic Church’s influence on politics and governance in the Philippines.

For years, proponents have been attempting to push family planning through the Philippines Congress, to no avail. The country has one of the highest birth rates in Asia, at 24.07 live births per 1,000 population. By one estimate, two babies are born every minute in the Philippines.

Now the proponents are trying again. They have got further than they ever have before, with “An Act Providing For National Policy On Reproductive Health, Responsible Parenthood and Population Development and For Other Purposes” – birth control, by any other name.

The brouhaha that has kicked off illustrates the hypocrisy of the separation of Church and State that the Philippines constitution stipulates. Theocracy is alive and well in the only Catholic nation in Asia, debunking the growing myth that the Catholic Church’s power has waned with the death of Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin.

The Philippines is 80 percent Catholic. And, although surveys have shown that there is no Catholic vote, politicians know better. “There may be no solid Catholic vote, but certainly, there is such a thing as Catholic backlash,” said one high-ranking official of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Former senator Juan Flavier had a first-hand experience. Tops in popularity surveys during a 1995 senatorial race, he landed sixth in the final count, the target of the church’s silent campaign. A well-respected health secretary before he joined politics, his no-nonsense promotion of responsible parenthood, safe-sex practices, pills and condoms cost him a political career.

The threat of election backlash has been raised once again in the reproductive health bill and church leaders are not shy in brandishing its supposed clout. Prayer and protest rallies have been held to dramatize objection. A signature drive against the bill is going on and so far 300,000 signatures have been collected.

“Our target is half a million signatures,” says Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines Commission on Family and Life.

Castro also says some bishops are conducting one-on-one dialogues with congressmen to try to withdraw support of the bill, which has reached the second reading stage. This means the bill is now being taken up on the floor for interpellation. He refuses to discuss what happens behind those close-door meetings.


Wake up call for Church

Although such bills have been filed in past Congresses by progressive legislators none has come this far. Former Ilocos Sur congresswoman Imee Marcos says passage has always been in the agenda of women legislators but they always end up in the archives.

“It’s been frustrating. You have the church against it and my colleagues do not want to incur the wrath of these church leaders,” she says.

Thus it came as a surprise when the current legislation bill got past the committee level and gained the support of about 100 House members. The House of Representatives has a total of 238 members.

The measure, principally authored by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, proposes mandatory reproductive health education starting Grade 5. It also pushes the use of both traditional and modern birth control methods and requires state hospitals to purchase contraceptives as part of their supply.

At first, there was little buzz about the bill and its implications. It was only when the number of supportive congressmen grew that the church went into panic mode.

Castro acknowledges the development “was a wake-up call for us. It shows that while many lawmakers are Catholics, they are not aware of the teachings of the church.”

As it had done in the past, when it appears to be losing public support on issues on family planning, the church resorted to guilt-ridden and conscience-laden argument.

Although nowhere in the bill does it say it legalizes abortion, the church has been drumbeating that it is the intended effect of the bill.

In a pastoral statement, CBCP president Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo said: “It is our collective discernment that the bill in its present form poses serious threat to life of infants in the womb. It is a source of danger for the stability of family. It places the dignity of womanhood at great risk."

Others resort to the medieval era, threatening excommunication to lawmakers who would advocate for the bill. Ozamiz Archbishop Jesus Dosado, in a pastoral letter, told his priests that they should refuse communion to politicians supporting bills that supposedly promote abortion, in a not-so-oblique reference to Lagman’s bill. The Church’s simplistic argument goes this way: if you are for the bill, then you must be anti-life.

Proponents have argued the health aspects but the emotional argument of the church has overshadowed objective analysis of the measure. And with the moral argument that all those who support the bill are essentially abortionists, the debate has turned personal.


Family planning as election issue

A Social Weather Stations survey has shown that most seven of 10 Filipinos support a family planning measure. To the church, this figure only means that majority of Filipinos “are no longer familiar with morality and family life,” Castro says. Castro says it is “providential” that the reproductive health bill has generated a hot debate which allows an opportunity for Catholics to be reacquainted with Catholic teachings.

Bayan Muna representative Teodoro Casino, a co-author, however laments that the bill has become a moral issue instead of a health issue. While not necessarily an advocate of a population program, he says the RH bill is meritorious because of its health aspect.

Since it was introduced in the plenary, the bill has undergone some changes as a “compromise” to the Church “to appease their demands.”

Casino acknowledges that congressional support has been swinging, with those who had earlier supported it withdrawing after the church made its move.

“However, Rep. Lagman says there are those who silently support the bill but would not come out yet,” Casino says. He argues that “nobody would argue that the RH bill is a bad policy. But then, they also say it is bad politics.”

Castro earlier warned that the Church would mobilize its lay groups to campaign against legislators who would support the bill. The church has not directly supported political candidates but it does not mean it would not campaign against candidates it deemed un-Catholic.

“As the 2010 elections are getting nearer, politicians should not afford to disregard the Catholic Church’s stand on the pro-life issues. Otherwise, the Catholic Church knows how to mobilize its members not to vote for anti-life politicians,” Castro said.

He said the stand of candidates in the forthcoming 2010 national elections on population issue would be used as gauge by some lay groups to throw or withdraw support to an aspirant.

So what are the chances that the bill will pass? While it has been moving inch by inch on the House, the Senate is yet to tackle the counterpart bill. This means the battle is not even halfway over, which gives the Church a cushion until the next elections.

Casino is optimistic of passage with more than a year left for Congress to hold sessions. He does not discount however that things could change as the election draws nearer.

For Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Oscar Cruz, the issue has been blown out of proportion by some church leaders. He said that with political storms hounding the administration, the least that the Arroyo government would want is to isolate support from sympathetic bishops.

The president has indicated she is not in favor of the bill but her lieutenants say otherwise. Malacañang deputy spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo, in a previous statement, said the government is willing to dialogue with Catholic bishops over the population control bills.

"Present realities require us to seriously consider the population impact on our economy and development programs," Fajardo said in a statement.

Archbishop Cruz is not surprised at the double-talk. He predicts that the church will have its way eventually, just like in the past. Still, he said he “will not shed a tear it they pass it. If they cannot even follow the 10 commandments, how can you expect them to uphold morality?”