Philippine Catholic leaders have vowed to overturn a birth-control bill after legislators passed landmark legislation to make sex education and contraceptives more widely available.
Church leaders in the Catholic-majority nation said on Tuesday that they would appeal to the Supreme Court and organise a campaign to oust its supporters in general elections next year.
President Benigno Aquino III, who certified the bill as urgent, considers it a major step towards reducing maternal deaths and promoting family planning in the impoverished country, which has one of Asia’s fastest-growing populations.
Legislators openly defied the church’s stand during the plenary voting, which was shown live on nationwide television.
“The Catholic church has steadfastly opposed the [reproductive health] bill for 13 years,” said Sen Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a key proponent.
“But I humbly submit this afternoon that there is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
Church leaders said in a pastoral letter on Sunday that if passed, the bill would put the moral fibre of the nation at risk.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, vice president of the Philippines’ Bishops Conference, said that “the wide and free accessibility of contraceptives will result in the destruction of family life.”
The Senate and the House of Representatives passed different versions of the bill, which languished in Congress for more than a decade as legislators avoided colliding with the influential church.
“Many Filipino women have faced difficulties and sometimes death because of the absence of a comprehensive and consistent reproductive health policy. This law can change that.”
– Carlos Conde, Human Rights Watch
The two versions will have to be reconciled before Aquino has an opportunity to sign the legislation.
The long delay in the bill’s passage has been attributed to politicians’ fear of upsetting conservative Catholic bishops, who helped mobilise popular support for the 1986 “people power” revolt that toppled autocratic leader Ferdinand Marcos and the 2001 overthrow of another president, Joseph Estrada.
But in a sign of changing times and attitudes, particularly across generations, reformist civil society groups and Aquino threw their weight behind the bill despite the threat of a backlash.
An independent survey in June last year found that 68 per cent of respondents agreed that the government should fund all means of family planning.
An October survey of 600 teenagers in Manila, the capital, also carried out by the Social Weather Stations institute, found that 87 per cent believed the government should provide reproductive health services to the poor.
Reducing maternal deaths
The United Nations said early this year that the bill would help reduce an alarming number of pregnancy-related deaths, prevent life-threatening abortions and slow the spread of AIDS.
The UN Population Fund says 3.4 million pregnancies occur in the Philippines every year. Half are unintended and a third are aborted, often in clandestine, unsafe and unsanitary procedures.
The fund says 11 women in the country die of pregnancy-related causes every day. Nearly 70 per cent of women use no contraception at all.
Reproductive health programmes are patchy and often unavailable to the poor. Some local governments have passed ordinances banning the sale of condoms and their distribution in health clinics.
“Many Filipino women have faced difficulties and sometimes death because of the absence of a comprehensive and consistent reproductive health policy. This law can change that,” said Carlos Conde, Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.