What the Pope Didn't Say in Manila

Pope Francis was received rapturously in the Philippines on his five-day visit, daring a typhoon to hold an open air mass in Tacloban, the city that was devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in November of 2013, and braving pouring rain in Manila to draw an estimated 6 million worshipers on Sunday.

He spoke of climate change, corruption and income inequality, of taking care of the poor in a country where 26.5 percent of the people are under the poverty line. Clad in a yellow slicker against the rain, riding in an open Jeepney, taking a common approach, he won the adoration of the country although, as one commentator put it, while people are fervent and love the pope, his presence may spur a bigger national debate on church attitudes even if he himself ignores some issues.

What he did not speak of are Catholic Church demands that a presumably secular state enforce its religious laws. The country’s 1987 Constitution directly borrows the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which declares that No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Nonetheless, the body of Philippine law directly contradicts that.

The Catholic Church would not have it any other way, and despite his cheery message of inclusion, he did not speak of the need for Filipino families to stop having too many babies, and that his church is the primary reason why. The population of the Philippines recently hit 100 million in an island nation that comfortably should support about 40 million. In a meeting with 1,000 families in Manila on Friday, he went out of his way to defend Pope Paul VI’s homily against birth control, and to condemn gay marriage.

Whatever his humanitarian instincts, that is not right. It is not right because it takes away the control by women over their bodies and delivers it to an antideluvian religious institution. It is not right because it is bad for the country and bad for the planet and bad for women especially. According to a March 2013 study by the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that works to advance reproductive health globally, the poorest Filipino women have nearly two more children than they want.

In 2008, nearly 70 percent of unmarried Filipino women wanting to avoid a pregnancy had no access to birth control. In 2008, admittedly six years ago although it is unlikely the situation has changed, 54 percent of all pregnancies in the Philippines—approximately two million—were unintended and 90 percent of those occurred among women who were using the rhythm method endorsed by the church, or no method at all.

If they had access to modern birth control methods, according to Guttmacher, unplanned births would decline by 800,000 per year and abortions, which are illegal, would decline by 500,000 per year. The World Health Organization estimates are even higher, with 70 percent of unwanted pregnancies in the Philippines ending in abortion, according to the WHO. Approximately 4 in 5 abortions in the Philippines are for economic reasons. According to Guttmacher, 100,000 women are hospitalized in the Philippines annually from the effects of illegal abortions and 1,000 of them die. That is the fault of the Philippine Catholic Church.

Pope Francis is the most popular pontiff in recent history. He has raised the hackles of US conservatives who consider him just slightly more respectable than an outright Marxist-Leninist for his views on income equality. But his views on population control align him with 2,000 years of popes who have condemned much of the world to misery, and particularly the Philippines. The Philippines has one of the highest birthrates in East Asia. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan and even China have long since hit replacement levels or below.

The Catholic Council of Bishops of the Philippines, among the most conservative in the world, conducted a 14-year fight to keep reproductive health off the Philippine legislative agenda; the public eventually ignored them because of the need for giving women choice.

That is what this is about in the long run as the Guttmacher survey demonstrates. In the clinical language of the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization, that is bad enough. But most Philippine abortions are committed by desperate women who throw themselves down flights of stairs, or “put unwanted pressure on their abdomens,” or employ midwives who use tools like coat hangers to scrape the uterus wall to induce bleeding.

Francis may be a near-revolutionary pope. But in the final analysis he is as culpable as his medieval predecessors. Beloved he may be, but he is condoning inhumane practices that result in death. He has said that the church can even let atheists and gays live and let live. But he does not and cannot bring himself to say that women have a right to their own bodies.

The Philippines is the only country in the world besides the Vatican itself that doesn’t allow divorce, condemning untold number of men and women to either live out lives they abhor, or to hide their separation if they want to continue to receive the sacraments. In the final analysis, this is the equivalent of a nice guy who looks the other way while thousands under him are committing a crime.