Philippines birth control legislation opposed by church

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At the Dr Jose Fabella Memorial hospital 300 proud mothers lie three to a bed, cradling their newborns. With up to 100 babies born every 24 hours here, this is one of the busiest maternity wards in the world.

“Sometimes, during high season, 13  to 16 babies are in the delivery room at the same time,” Arlene Matanguihan, a resident doctor, says. “It’s chaotic but an organised chaos. We can still manage – no baby drops out on the floor.”

The doctors and staff may be proud of their work, but the Philippines‘ birth rate is another matter. With a population of 90 million, expanding at 1.9% annually, many people are asking whether the country can sustain the growth rate.

In the Philippines 90% of the people are devout Roman Catholic and the majority of the population does not have access to birth control methods.

In Congress politicians are now debating family planning legislation, under the responsible parenthood-reproductive health bill; if passed, the legislation could transform birth control in Asia’s most populous Catholic country, allowing government health clinics to educate people about various birth control methods and give easy access to them.

But it is proving divisive. Although local surveys find that a majority of the public supports the bill’s passage, the politically influential Catholic church has adamantly opposed it. Members of the Catholics Bishops Conference of the Philippines have openly campaigned against it, threatening civil disobedience and to excommunicate the president, Benigno Aquino III, who backs the bill.

The Church has implied that birth control is the equivalent of abortion, which remains illegal in the country. CBCP’s Father Melvin Castro says, “We are opposing God’s will to procreate.”

But politicians such as Congressman Edcel Lagman, author of the bill in the House of Representatives believe that access to family planning information and services will have both a positive immediate impact and a ripple effect on the country. Lagman believes the bill is both human rights based and a health measure.

“It will help give parents the chance to exercise their right to free and responsibly plan the number and spacing of their children, and help improve maternal newborn education and reduce infant and maternal mortality,” Lagman says. “It will also give women more opportunities to finish their education and secure productive work, help reduce poverty by curbing the population growth rate and help reduce abortion by preventing unwanted pregnancies.”

Even the country’s President Aquino has voiced his support for this more comprehensive approach to future development of the country: “I know some sectors are against this bill, but it is the right thing to do. “It is right to educate our people, instead of holding them hostage to the scant resources available to them.”

Politicians opposed to the bill, such as the representative Karlo Nograles, believe that its mandatory requirements go against free choice, and that the measure “creates more dangers than solutions”. He believes that proposed mandatory sex education for children at the age of 11 will “violate the freedom of  religion“.

But Matanguihan agrees with the bill. A lot of her patients are from the poorest of backgrounds “and can’t really afford to raise four or five children”.

She said they needed to consider contraception to take better care of the children they already had in their family.

Featured Photo: Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters
June 8, 2011
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