Philippine Supreme Court Delays Birth Control Law

The Philippine Supreme Court, on a 10-5 vote, today delayed the implementation of the country's historic reproductive health law for four months until oral arguments can be heard on the law's constitutionality.

The controversial family planning bill was passed in December after a 14-year no-holds-barred campaign by the Catholic Church to keep it from becoming law. The church, unable to stop the measure in the legislature, appears to have used their allies in the country's divided Supreme Court to delay implementation. Ten separate petitions have been filed by allies of the church to attempt to stop the law from going into effect. Oral arguments are set for June 14.

The justices voting against implementation, led by new Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Serino, are all regarded as allies of President Benigno S. Aquino III, with the 10 voting to delay it being allied with former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who largely did the church's bidding in exchange for its support of her in attempts to drive her from office via impeachment.

Edwin Lacierda, spcokesman for President Benigno Aquino III, told the Associated Press that the government was confident it would be able to defend implementation. "We will observe the...resolution issued by the Supreme Court and we are confident that government will be able to defend the merits of the Responsible Parenthood Law," Lacierda said.

The law mandates that government health centers provide free access to nearly all contraceptives including condoms, IUDs and other devices to everyone. It also makes sexual education compulsory in public schools.

Some churches throughout the country have been displaying banners carrying the names of lawmakers who voted for the successful passage of the measure and demanding that their parishioners vote them out of office in elections expected in June. Backers of the law retaliated by publicly naming priests who have quietly married against the church's laws.

In January, the Catholic Bishops Conference issued a pastoral letter condemning 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" and said the reproductive health bill would increase divorce, the use of condoms and contraceptives, which would lead to more abortions and aggravate HIV infections as well as bringing more promiscuity and teenage pregnancy.

The bishops in other pastoral letters have labeled the reproductive health measure "the culture of death."

"The reproductive health law was passed by Congress to address the many grave health risks faced by Filipino women," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "By delaying implementation of the law for at least four months -- a long time for an interim order -- the Supreme Court is putting an untold number of women and girls at unnecessary risk. While we respect the judicial process in the Philippines, Filipino women and families have waited and suffered long enough."

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. However, as many as seven out of 10 Filipinos polled said they 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.

Although there are signs in the cities and among the middle class that birth rates are falling on their own, 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.

With or without the opposition of the church, the government faces a massive job in putting the measure into place. 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.

The Catholic Church and pro-life groups welcomed the decision, saying they interpreted the court's decision as backing the merits of their argument.

"We deem it as a victory, but not a final victory yet," Eric Manalang, president of Pro-Life Philippines, told the AFP, describing the law as "evil".