Inside Story

Who will win the battle over birth control?

A controversial new law pits the Philippines government against the country’s predominant and powerful Catholic lobby.

The Catholic church in the Philippines has declared war on birth control following a landmark legislation that has come into effect, effectively making sex education and contraception more widely available.

Church leaders have promised to have the law thrown out, saying they must obey God and not man.

It is a controversial issue that is pitting the Philippine government against the powerful Catholic church in a country where at least 80 percent of the population are Roman Catholics.

“It should be clear from the very beginning that the Catholic church wants good health care for women, men, children … It’s also very careful that the cure or what is being put on offer may not be detrimental to life. One of the big issues that have been in many reproductive health bills has been the type of contraceptives that is being offered. In some countries the problem is that some of the contraceptives produce abortion.

– Gerard O’Connell, a Vatican affairs commentator

For more than 10 years politicians have been lobbied and even intimidated into blocking bills advocating birth control.

The Reproductive Health law requires government health centres to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, and sex education to be taught in schools.

Supporters say the move is necessary to stem population growth, reduce maternal death rates, help avoid unwanted pregnancies among poor women, and slow down the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases.

The country’s population has almost tripled since 1970, hitting just under 95 million in 2011 to mark a rise of 20 million in 10 years.

The population growth in the Philippines is one of the fastest-growing in the world, but opponents argue that the growth rate is actually slowing down, in line with many other countries.

Some church leaders are urging people not to use contraceptives, even if they are given free, saying they have a moral responsibility to have the law overturned.

They are also warning politicians who disagree with them that they will be targeted in the next elections in May.

The Reproductive Health law is really for everybody, men, young people and even babies, so [on this point alone] the allegation that the law is unnecessary cannot be given much credence … but we need a law that will substantiate what’s in the Magna Carta for Women.”

– Elizabeth Angsioco, a women’s rights activist

Father Melvin Castro, of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, says contraceptives are not the answer to poverty: “They are poor not because they have no access to contraceptives but because they have no work. Give them work and it will be the most effective birth spacing means for them.”

Another concern in the Philippines is the number of women dying during childbirth. The latest family health survey estimated a 36 percent rise in 2011 in the maternal mortality rate, to 221 per 100,000 live births.

That is up from 162 two years earlier, and way short of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal target of 52 percent per 100,000 births by 2015.

To discuss this issue and more on Inside Story with presenter Shiulie Ghosh are guests: Mitos Magsaysay, a member of the Philippines’ lower house of parliament who opposes the new law; Gerard O’Connell, a journalist specialising in Catholic affairs, and formerly the Vatican correspondent for the Union of Catholic Asian News; and Elizabeth Angsioco, the national chair of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines, a non-governmental organisation that supports the new legislation.

“The Magna Carta for Women already tells you how the different government agencies will address this problem and all the government has to do is implement it. The only reason why they wanted to pass these measures is because we did not provide any funding provisions for the procurement of condoms and contraceptives in that law.”

Mitos Magsaysay, a member of the Philippines house of representative