Religion a Spare Wheel in Philippines' First Family Planning Programme?

by Tanya Thomas on Sep 1 2008 9:06 AM

 Religion a Spare Wheel in Philippines
Philippines- a country with one of the highest birth rates in all of Asia, one of the lowest per capita incomes where the catholic church holds sway and dictates the way of life- family planning is a raging debate which just doesn’t seem to end.
Philippine congressman Edcel Lagman, who has introduced a Reproductive Health Care Act that appears to be gaining widespread support, believes the time has come for the Philippines to take family planning seriously.

"Despite what the church is saying Filipino people, especially the poor, want family planning," he told AFP in an interview.

"They want to have control over what methods they use and they want the ability to choose without fearing a backlash from the church," he said.

National surveys by pollsters Pulse Asia and the Social Weather Station have repeatedly shown that more than 80 percent of Filipinos want to have control over their fertility.

The Catholic Church, however, is campaigning against the bill -- which must receive the support of the majority of congress and senate members before being presented to the president for her signature.

Some church leaders are threatening to excommunicate legislators who support it, with some saying they might refuse to preside over marriages or administer Holy Communion to anyone associated with the bill.

The Roman Catholic Church is traditionally opposed to any form of birth control, a position reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Commenting on the bill recently, Manila's Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales said the church would fight for the "defenseless" fetus.

"Life should be valued and its creation is a serious matter," he said.

"Couples who have the discipline to practice the church-sanctioned natural family planning methods are in possession of true values of life and tend to pass it on to their children. They also tend to be good citizens.

"If there is discipline in the marital bed, then there is discipline in the streets, there is discipline in schools, there is discipline in the government," he said

The Philippines has one of the highest birthrates in Asia, with the population growing at around two percent annually and expected to hit 100 million within the next five years, according to the National Statistics Office.

The Philippines is the world's 12th most populous country, but with 40 percent of the country's 90 million people living on less than two dollars a day, the high birthrate has been described by former president Fidel Ramos as a "ticking time bomb".

He said with inflation at a 17-year high, economic growth slowing and people starting to slip back into poverty, the need for a comprehensive family planning programme has become "a matter of national survival".

Fundamental to concerns held by Ramos and Lagman, and other supporters of the bill, is the poverty that is almost guaranteed for large families.

"Data shows that the poverty incidence is less than 10 percent for a family with one child compared to 57 percent for a family with nine or more children," said University of the Philippines economist Benjamin Diokno.

The Philippines does not have the resources to support its rapidly rising population, he said.

Until now, the government has left family planning to local governments and President Gloria Arroyo, a devout Catholic, supports the church's stance on birth control.

Contraceptives are rarely displayed and abortion is illegal.

A UN Population Fund study last year said two out of every five women would prefer to use contraceptives such as the pill, coils or condoms but do not have access to them.

The study also said that some 473,000 abortions occur in the Philippines annually. The World Health Organisation has put the figure at more than 800,000 a year, which would make it one of the highest in the world.

Lagman says he fears the influence of the Catholic Church could stymie reforms he sees as essential for economic and social progress.

"We have a very conservative church in this country and the church still exerts a lot of influence in politics," Lagman said. "The fact is economically we can not afford our current rate of population growth."

He has the support of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC), which says it supports birth control as a way of curtailing the "alarming growth of our population".

"About 5,800 babies are born daily. One doesn't have to be an economist to tally how much more food, water, shelter, medicine and other resources will be needed for their support," the group said in a recent statement.

It is not the first time lawmakers have tried to introduce a family planning bill -- Lagman says his is the 11th or 12th in the last 20 years.

So far more than 25 percent of the 238 Congressmen and women have signed the bill and many more are said to be supporting it verbally.

While it still faces long odds given the church's position and influence, Lagman says he is gaining support from within government ranks.

Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral has said she supports birth control and that not even the president can change her mind.

"I will not sacrifice my principles for the sake of expediency," she said recently.

But even if a birth control bill does pass through Congress and the Senate it would still have to pass a final challenge -- gaining the support, and signature of President Arroyo.


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