Philippine High Court OK’s Historic Birth Control Law

The Philippine Supreme Court has finally ruled that the landmark Reproductive Health Law passed in 2012 but suspended awaiting Tuesday’s verdict is constitutional, but offered a compromise on an edict that has polarized the only predominantly Roman Catholic country in Asia.

Both supporters and opponents of the sharply debated measure claimed partial victory after the verdict in a struggle that in many ways is a battle aimed at blunting the church’s longstanding ability to wield political power in the country. In upholding the constitutionality of the act, the court paved the way for the government to manage the country’s burgeoning population growth. Under the terms of the law, government health centers will be required to hand out free condoms and birth control pills and sex education is to be taught in schools.

The measure also requires that public health workers receive family planning training, while post-abortion medical care is also legalized. But the court struck down some penal provisions that were designed to punish and fine local health providers who refuse to disseminate information on birth control services and programs. These are some of the provisions of the RH law that the Church hierarchy opposed. The president of the powerful Catholic Bishop’s Council of the Philippines, Archbishop Socrates Villages, said in a statement that the court “has truly watered down the RH law” by “[upholding] the importance of adhering to an informed religious conscience even among government workers” and "[standing] on the side of the rights of parents to teach their children.”

The court’s ruling sets up a battle over implementation not unlike the maneuvering that kept the law bottled up in the legislature for years. The law faces implacable opposition from many local priests and bishops who can be expected to lean on local government officials to ignore it. Efforts to put the law into effect in thousands of small communities are certain to be hampered by the fact that the court lifted the penalties for local officials who refuse to comply.

In the main, however, the decision is a significant victory for pro-choice advocates who believe it is the government’s primary function to educate the people on reproductive health. Former Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of the authors of the bill, said the “few provisions whose constitutionality was not upheld will not diminish the efficacy of the law and deter its full implementation.” With the Roman Catholic Church wielding considerable political power in the country, it took 14 years for the Philippine Congress to finally muster enough votes and, more importantly, courage to finally pass a law that transcended religious biases, broke with tradition and dared to challenge the church. In previous years, the threat that the church would take on individual members of congress who dared advocate the law was enough to bring it to a halt.

Passage of the law is considered to be one of President Benigno S. Aquino’s biggest triumphs and it also illustrates the church’s fading power. In 2013 legislative elections, attempts by some members of clergy to defeat individual lawmakers failed badly. Aquino’s slate of candidates prevailed. Although 81 percent of Filipinos classify themselves as Catholics, as many as seven of 10 polled last year indicated they supported the reproductive health act. Half of Filipinos 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. The Philippines faces the stark reality of the strain population growth puts on government resources. With a population of 94 million, the country is the 12th most populous in the world, with an annual population growth rate of 1.71 percent. But with a land area of 298,170 square kilometers it is ranked only 73rd in the world, making it one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with the highest total fertility rate in east Asia.

There is also a lesson in the fact that the law passed under Aquino, whose late mother Corazon was a devout icon for many of the faithful. Her rise to the presidency in 1986 was considered by some clerics to be a miracle and the Catholic leadership had considerable influence over her term in office. The Supreme Court decision goes some distance to check the church’s tendency to use its influence to act almost as a back-door branch of government with virtual veto power on some personal issues. The court seems to have drawn a somewhat firmer line separating church and state when it comes to the welfare of Filipinos. But the justices flinched by nullifying penalties for non-compliance. No wonder the Catholic Church is not all that enraged by the ruling. With reporting by Edwin Espejo, who blogs for Asian Correspondent