Filipino Catholics Ratchet Up Fight on Reproductive Health Law

Despite the historic December enactment after 14 years of a comprehensive reproductive health bill by Philippine lawmakers, the Catholic Church is not giving up by any means, and the issue of whether the law actually gets implemented is open to a certain amount of doubt.

On Jan. 28, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the guiding body of the Philippine church, issued a flame-throwing pastoral letter "on certain issues of the day" dealing with "Our Problems as a Nation" and asking parishioners to "Proclaim the Message, In Season and Out of Seasons."

After reciting the litany of violent storms and other issues the country has faced in the past year, the church condemned "the slavishness of our political and business leaders to follow practices in Western countries that promote, in spite of examples that we clearly see in the West,

  • divorce, resulting in more break-up of families and the dysfunctional growth of children,

  • contraceptives, leading to more abortions,

  • the use of condom, aggravating HIV-AIDS infection, and

  • school sex education, bringing more promiscuity and teenage pregnancy."

"We denounce the passage of the Reproductive Health Law, the political and financial pressures imposed on lawmakers, and the imperialism exercised by secularistic international organizations in the legislative process," the letter continued. "We admire and commend the valiant efforts of lay people and lawgivers to prevent the passage of the law. We support the efforts of our lay people in challenging the RH Law in the Supreme Court and in other venues within the bounds of our democratic system. We support and encourage the participation of the laity in electing competent and morally upright candidates who are faithful to their correct and informed conscience."

The bishops in other pastoral letters have labeled the reproductive health measure "the culture of death." It is questionable, however, how much sway pastoral letters have today. They do act as a directive to local parishes on what issues they can say during mass. Also, they guide parishes in civic activities in which pro-RH politicians can be shut out, affecting their electoral campaigns.

Some 81 percent of all Filipinos classify themselves as Catholics, although it is questionable whether the church has as much influence as it did in the past, when opposition to a political candidate meant almost certain loss in the polls. The Catholic Church's activism played a major role in driving both Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada from power.

However, as many as seven out of 10 Filipinos polled support the implementation of the measure, said Rom Dongeto, the executive director of Philippine Legislators' Committee for Population and Development (PLCPD), an NGO that is one of the strongest proponents of the law. While local parishes are certain to try to block the implementation on a local level, Dongeto said, he is confident that public support will enable officials to put the program into place.

There are signs that the church has lost a good deal of its influence because of scandals within the faith itself as well as the continuing secularization of society and the rise of a middle class that is no longer in thrall of strict religious practice. Half of those who marry today do so in civil ceremonies, or don't wed at all, which fits with statistics that show 20 percent of the country's births are out of wedlock.

There are signs in the cities and among the middle class that birth rates are falling on their own. Nonetheless, population growth is very nearly out of control, although figures vary widely. The CIA Factbook projected the population at 103.7 million people in July 2012 although the Philippines National Statistics Office projected that there would be 97 million. Either set of figures would make the Philippines the world's 12th largest country.

Just how implacable the church's opposition will be is exemplified by the fact that seven lawsuits have been filed by the church's allies. Almost immediately after President Benigno S. Aquino III's signature of the bill was announced belatedly on Dec. 31, Jo Imbong, the Council of Bishops' attorney, representing her son, James Imbong and his wife Lovely-Ann, filed a 27-page petition urging the Supreme Court to invalidate the law. While the court agreed to take the case, however, it refused to stop implementation, which was due to begin by the Department of Health on Jan. 17.

One action filed on Jan. 24 by Eduardo B. Olaguer and the Catholic Xybrspace Apostolate of the Philippines cited the unconstitutionality of certain provisions including one saying it violates a section of the Welfare Code that states that "the civil personality of the child shall commence from the time of his conception, for all purposes favorable to him, subject to the requirements of Article 41 of the Civil Code."

With or without the opposition of the church, the government faces a massive job in putting the measure into place. The measure guarantees universal access to birth control devices as well as sexual education in the schools and dissemination of information on fertility, maternal care and family planning devices such as condoms, birth control pills and IUDs throughout the country's health centers.

Filipino government is chaotic at best. The country is spread across 7,000 islands totaling 300,000 square kilometers. The church holds definitive sway in the thousands of villages that make up the countryside. Local officials answer to the church, and there is hardly a parish in the country whose priests didn't denounce the law as it made its way through the legislature.

"We are working with the Department of Health in developing comprehensive rules and regulations for implementation," Dongeto said. "Pro-life groups will not stop or delay the spirit or implementation. They will use the pulpit, the media, the legal apparatus, but I think the government will have to stand to its commitment. It is the right of individuals and couples to plan families, their right to demand information. The moral grounds are strong. In terms of the positioning of the government, they are ready."