Filipino Catholics Take Aim at Birth Control Bill

As expected, the Catholic Church is not giving up its effort to block the implementation of the Philippine government's historic new reproductive health law, which was signed into law without fanfare by President Benigno S. Aquino III on Dec. 21.

Both houses of the Philippine legislature approved the bill on Dec. 17 after 14 years of efforts to obtain government funding for birth control in the face of implacable opposition by the Conference of Bishops of the Philippines, the church's governing body. While the passage demonstrates Aquino's growing approval by major sectors of the electorate, he must now demonstrate his clout even more by dragooning local officials into implementing it despite their fear of the church's wrath.

Almost immediately after Aquino's signature of the bill was announced belatedly on Dec. 31, Jo Imbong, the conference's attorney, representing her son, James Imbong and his wife Lovely-Ann, filed a 27-page petition urging the Supreme Court to invalidate the law, which takes effect on Jan. 17. The Bishops' Conference, however, said that while it supported the Imbongs' petition it didn't have a direct hand in its filing.

In a press conference following the filing of the petition, Presidential Press Secretary Edwin Lacierda told reporters it was "good" that the Imbongs had filed the case because "now the government through the Office of Solicitor General will be prepared to defend the RH law."

The petitioners, Lacierda said, didn't raise any issues that hadn't been brought up and answered during the congressional debates.

"The contention that was raised by Mr. James Imbong is not something new, it had already been raised during the debates," he said.

"We respect the option (the opponents) have taken but we are confident that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the Filipino women and mothers who stand to benefit from this law," said a Manila-based spokesman for Human Rights Watch. "(T)he Reproductive Health Bill is a victory for Filipino women, who have waited long enough for this day to happen. This bill marks the start of an era in which public policies in the Philippines can save lives, promote healthy family planning, and respect human rights. Women's rights groups in the Philippines played a key role in pushing the Reproductive Health Bill in both houses of Congress and keeping it alive in the national agenda despite overwhelming odds. The Aquino administration and the legislators should be commended for standing up for women's health and rights."

In a country where political power often provides more sway than judicial arguments, sources in Manila say the court, which has been made over as Aquino's in the wake of the sacking and impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona, is likely to uphold the law.

However, that is almost certainly only the beginning of the process, and one which is still in doubt and which very much depends on Aquino's political sway throughout the provinces. Church forces are holding a series of prayer rallies across the country in opposition to the law, Imbong told Agence France-Press.

"This is just the first salvo," she added. "We are paving the way for other similar suits from many faith-based groups."

"The anti-RH folks can definitely stall the administrative process," a Manila source told Asia Sentinel. "The conservatives and the Catholic Church have allies running local governments and they certainly can try to influence how the law will be or won't be implemented. Local politicians who still fear the political might of the church will definitely pay heed."

The comprehensive new law provides for teaching sex education in the tens of thousands of schools and the creation of a curriculum to provide reproductive health education, counseling on family planning, maternal education, care and services, promotion of breast-feeding, prevention of abortion and provision of information and services addressing birth control needs for the tens of millions of poor, prostitutes and others in the thousands of cities and towns across the sprawling country, which comprises some 7,000-odd islands with lots of jurisdictions a long way from the central government's influence.

It is in the provinces where poverty is most endemic and where birth control information is most urgently needed, and where the Catholic Church is most likely to bring pressure to bear.

"I think local politicians are much more vulnerable if the conservatives decide to go this route," the source said. "They can try to derail implementation. On the other hand, there's always the threat of sanctions, both legal and political, if they refuse to implement the law or try to derail it. They can try as long as they can to hold it off. Keep in mind that a little less than half of Congress voted against the bill so these are the potential troublemakers for this law on the local level. These legislators hold sway over local politics ? their wives or husbands or sons and daughters could be governors and mayors."

It is now crucial for the Aquino government to use its clout through the Liberal Party, which Aquino heads as president, to whip local officials into line.

"It would be a testament to the Aquino government's commitment to this law if it decides to use political force against party officials who might be influenced by the conservatives," the source said.

Although 86 percent of the country's 96 million people are Catholics, fewer than half marry in the church and public opinion surveys have consistently shown that a majority of the electorate supports birth control in a country that has the highest birth rate, at 2.04 percent, in Southeast Asia, and one of the highest poverty rates.

When Aquino moved to make the bill a priority issue, Bishop Nereo Odchimar, the head of the Bishops' Conference, threatened Aquino, with excommunication, which raised an uproar and probably contributed to his approval ratings when he said he wouldn't change his position. The church itself has faced a series of unsavory issues that have cut into its credibility, including backing the corruption-riddled government of former President Gloria Macagapal Arroyo, anointing as a Cebu monsignor a pedophile church figure who fled the United States to escape arrest, and charges by cynics that many priests are married and deliver absolution and annulments in exchange for money.