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Philippines bishops' contraception conundrum


Colourful condomsThe battle in the Philippines over the Reproductive Health Bill continues unabated, with Catholic bishops calling for a tax boycott. President Benigno Aquino III has in turn threatened sedition charges. He was obviously not perturbed when Church authorities warned last year of excommunication if he supported the bill. He has said that he will not veto it.

So what is the furore all about?

The Philippines is the only predominantly Christian country in Asia, with 80 per cent identifying as Catholic. Also, it is the 12th most populous nation, of which a third lives in poverty — that's 32 million people who do not meet an adequate standard of living.

It is these factors that make the conflict over the RH bill volatile. The flashpoint is that the bill promotes a comprehensive family planning program that includes contemporary forms of contraception and age-appropriate sex education.

It predictably set its supporters on a collision course with Catholic leaders, who have been quite vocal in their opposition to government endorsement of artificial contraception rather than Church-approved 'natural family planning' (abstinence based on a woman's menstrual cycle).

The issue may be difficult to grasp from an Australian perspective, since Australian Catholic bishops do not enforce a ban against the pill or condoms with such activism. But in the Philippines, where Catholicism is woven through the culture and language, the teaching against birth control permeates even its politics. Electoral ambitions live and die according to the candidate's stance on contraception.

The Aquino Government, however, positions its population policy within its anti-poverty program.

The premise is that a family can only sensibly produce children within its means, and, by extension, a meagre economy like the Philippines cannot sustain its current population rate.

While children are deeply treasured in this family-centric society, economists at the University of the Philippines point out that poverty incidence rises with the number of children. Also, larger families tend to spend less on each child's education and health, which perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage.

Hence, there are serious consequences of Catholic teaching against artificial contraception.

To be fair, Pope John Paul II spoke of 'a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child. Therefore, when there is a reason not to procreate, this choice is permissible and may even be necessary.' His words offer a window that some would rather have bolted shut.

However, it is patently unjust for Filipino women to lack access to relevant education and services regarding their reproductive health. Though they nearly exclusively bear the burden of raising children, they are disempowered from choosing how many to have and how far apart.

This limits their participation in the workforce, but more importantly takes a toll on their health. The maternal mortality rate in the Philippines is 162 per 100,000 live births compared to 8.4 in Australia.

The irony is that, while Catholic bishops have staunchly opposed modern forms of birth control, the public paralysis that it has engendered over sexual health care has led to high rates of abortion — an estimated 27 abortions per thousand women. Inability to afford raising another child is the most significant reason, identified by 72 per cent of women who had an abortion.

The Philippine Catholic Church can thus be seen to be at odds with its ministry for the poor. Its inflexibility becomes punitive when women who are unable to make informed choices live with the consequences anyway. By compelling people to choose a family planning method that is unreliable, it is keeping impoverished Filipinos from sensibly constructing a more dignified future for their children.

The reality is that people do want to act morally within their desire for a better life. That is why they would prefer to avoid getting pregnant than have an abortion. Many Filipino women are already making this choice but now feel stigmatised by the public brawl over the RH bill. What is lost is the idea that the decision to not have a child can be made in good conscience.

The 1968 Winnipeg Statement, the Canadian bishops' response to the papal encyclical against artificial contraception, accommodates such exercise of faith, declaring that 'the unity of the Church does not consist in a bland conformity in all ideas, but rather in a union of faith and heart, in submission to God's will and a humble but honest and ongoing search for the truth'.

This open-heartedness to a continuing understanding of God's truth was echoed by Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner at the time:

'Bishops should not act as though the encyclical were irreformable or as though everyone who dissented were guilty of contempt of authority or were separating himself from the church. They should refrain from imposing canonical penalties on persons who respectfully and discreetly propose another view ...

'If no one could voice his opposition to reformable doctrines, the development and correction of the Church's official teaching would be seriously hampered.'

Philippine bishops, as well as others in the Catholic leadership, would do well to reflect on his words today. 

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a writer and former state school teacher.

Topic tags: Philippines, Contraception, Contraception, Reproductive Health Bill, Winnipeg Statement, Karl Rahner



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Existing comments

The sight of Filipino small children picking over rubbish dumps to supplement the family income stays with me still. When wiil the church let women have freedom over their own bodies?

Jenny Martin | 17 May 2011  

As Fatima rightly alluded to in her article, the Magisterium advocates the need to be responsible in determining how many children to have and how far apart to space their births. Unfortunately however, artificial contraception is not a magic cure to the problems Fatima outlines in the article. The pill, for example, does not stop the spread of STIs, it acts as an abortifacient when it fails to suppress ovulation, it is linked to significantly increased health problems for women who take it, etc. Also, if the experience in the West is anything to go by, widespread use of artificial birth control has done nothing to reduce the abortion rate. In fact, the opposite is true - the contraceptive mentality has only led to a cheapening of life and an exponential increase in the abortion rate. The people of the Philippines would be better served if government corruption ceased and if the government provided more opportunities for education and training. Philippine women would be much more empowered if their fertility was seen as a shared responsibility, and if they were educated about how to control their fertility naturally, which is not only morally acceptable, it is a cheaper, healthier, and a much more reliable method of managing fertility.

DJ Byrne | 17 May 2011  

I'm with Jenny but would observe that Catholic women in Australia don't worry about the Church's teachings on contraception. Catholics generally regard many of the Church's teachings and decisions as reflecting the views of an isolated hierarchy too concerned with the exercise and protection of their authority, rather than Christ's message of love. How else do we explain the cover-up of child abuse, the lack of due process in the sacking of Bishop Morris, the papal direction that we're not allowed to talk about the ordination of women, the rushed beatifiaction of the Pope who presided over the child abuse scandal, etc. Every bishop should have a look at this video which harshly reflects the disillusionment of many Catholics with their leaders: http://www.catholica.com.au/forum/index.php?id=74623

Peter Johnstone | 17 May 2011  

Well said Fatima. I think it is brutal policy on women and the well being of their families to deny them reproductive choices, creating suffering when we have the gift of contraception. Cause and Effect. How can the Bishops et al sit in the knowledge that poverty would reduce and the people thrive in the Phillipines (and African countries) just like they did in my forebears lives.

Julie | 17 May 2011  

How can the Church allow something that is against the natural law? How can something that prevents the natural functioning of the body not be against the natural law?

Gavan | 17 May 2011  

Most insightful essay, Fatima. Thanks.

Joyce | 18 May 2011  

Well done Fatima.
Gavan: We (and that probably includes you) dabble with 'the natural functioning of the body' every time we put on glasses, take an antibiotic, have a hip replacement or put on shoes before we walk over glass.

It is time we took 'natural' methods off a pedestal. The intent is the same whether you opt for 'natural' family planning or not: avoiding a pregnancy.'Natural' methods have no moral high ground. Give the responsibility for family planning back to those who will feed, clothe and educate any children they have: the parents.

Margaret Carswell | 18 May 2011  

In Victoria, it is reported that 2/3 of all abortions are due to failed contraception. See Vic Health's website. So contraception not only doesn't prevent abortions, it is likely that the widespread use of contraception is actually a REASON WHY we see so many abortions. Women plan their life upon the delusion that contraception is reliable, then when it fails many women do not 'own' the consequences: medicine got me into this fix, medicine owes me a way out.

I have not used contraception and am thankful for the freedom it has given my body. I have not plied my bodied with bucket loads of hormone pills over a 20 year period, unlike many of my friends. My body does what it was designed to do. I know its every nuance and rumble and twinge. We have responsibly planned our family ... yes it can be done.

When it comes to 'freedom' for women... I'm not sure that contraception has made women 'free'. Are women happier, healthier, more peaceful, more loved, more secure, ... than they were before contraception defined their womanhood.? I don't think so.

Cathy | 18 May 2011  

Contraception in the form of the pill is abortifacient in many cases. The World Health organisaton has listed the pill as a Class 1 carcinogen. Check the site. It comes as a shock to many women. More significantly there is a UN agenda in the PHillipines - population control. I have been to the Phillipines - women are denied social benefits and welfare if they have more than 3 children.

I am more concerned with contraceptive imperialism. Why not teach the Billings natural methods which cost nothing? Because that would truly give Phillipino women knowledge and power. But it would upset the artificial contraception imperialists who are wealthier than the cigarette magnates ever were. They will kill, brainwash and manipulate for all they're worth to keep women taking the pill. It's been a huge con and women are waking up to it.

Skye | 18 May 2011  

Well, bully for you Cathy. By all means does as you like, but stop telling others what they should do when they don't share your religion-based views and opinions.

And as for your claim that contraception causes abortions, how many more abortions do you think there would be if there were no contraceptives? Using your logic, I could argue that as most road deaths in the Philippines are caused by motor accidents the Church should oppose the supply of motor vehicles and the education of drivers.

Ginger Meggs | 18 May 2011  

How does pouring dollars into contraception redress obvious lack of infrastructure for maternal and child, pre- and post-natal health?

The really insightful journalistic line, rather than regurgitating the feminist agenda (complete with misinformation on Church teaching regarding contraceptives), would be to ferret out whether powerful international aid donors are heavying the Philippines into these draconian laws.

Peter, Canberra, Australia | 18 May 2011  

I remain bewildered that the Church maintains a fundamentalist stand against contraception. The fact that this stand results in an increased abortion rate in the desperately poor Philippines is scandalous. As a practicing doctor for almost forty years I can tell those who do not know that about 99% of Catholic women in Australia - perhaps more educated and informed than those in the third world - have obviously examined their consciences and found themselves free to use the full range of contraceptive measures available. We know because we are asked to write the scripts. Why do you think that Catholic families have the usual two or three kids, not eight or ten? It is certainly not the Billings method or abstinence.

It is truly silly to maintain edicts set down by men that have been utterly rejected by the vast majority of even practicing Catholic women. If the purists would like to exclude the families using contraception in Australia they will be sitting in completely empty churches.

Coalface Doc | 18 May 2011  

Well said, Fatima.

Jim Jones | 18 May 2011  

Well said, Fatima.

Jim Jones | 18 May 2011  

The author speaks of Karl Rahner being "open-hearted". Apparently Karl Rahner is open-hearted because he agrees with her point of view - that contraception is morally permissible. The Church in the Philippines, however, is "inflexible", "punitive" and at odds with the poor because it takes a different view regarding contraception from her and the open-hearted Karl Rahner.

The author is a "former" teacher. Well, perhaps that's for the best.

HH | 18 May 2011  

In response to Ginger, I would simply point to the fact that widespread availability and use of contraception in Australia has not led to a decrease in abortions. Rather the opposite.

Cathy | 19 May 2011  

Margaret, all those things you mention, putting on glasses etc, are intended to maintain or enhance the natural functioning of the body. Artificial contraception frustrates it.

Gavan | 19 May 2011  

Let's assume, Cathy, for the purposes of this argument, that you could demonstrate a correlation between the use of contraceptives and the incidence of abortion. So what? A correlation does not imply a causal relationship. Show me, if you can, that an increase in the use of contraceptives has caused an increase in abortions beyond what might have occurred had contraceptives been banned. Quote the peer-reviewed research, and then I could be persuaded.

Ginger Meggs | 19 May 2011  

I'm sure I read somewhere that the Vatican, some years back, gave permission for a Women's Religious Order in Africa to use artificial contraception becasue of the high probability of rape.

Charles | 20 May 2011  

Cathy’s post on 18 May cited the Vic Health website as a source for her statement that a high proportion of abortions follow from failed contraception, which she then uses to assert that ‘the widespread use of contraception is actually a REASON WHY [her emphasis] we see so many abortions’. Unfortunately, Cathy has been a bit selective in her use of the information on that website, for it also says that ‘international [abortion] rates range from 7.7 in Germany to 90 in Eastern Europe, with a world average of 33–37 abortions per 1000 women’, and that ‘these rates tend to reflect the attitude of each country to comprehensive sexuality education and effective contraception rather than the sexual behaviour of the people who live there’. The Vic Health website also says that ‘Australia’s abortion rate [19.7] is reasonably low by international standards’. Fatima’s article quotes a rate of 27 in the Philippines, which I would have thought was a reasonably high rate in the light of the Vic Health figures. I’m guessing now, but I imagine that, for all sorts of reasons, the use of contraceptives is much less prevalent in the Philippines than it is in this country. If I’m right, then the data suggest an inverse correlation between the use of contraceptives and the rate of abortions in the two countries, in other words the lower the rate of contraceptive use, the higher the rate of abortions. I acknowledge that this correlation does not prove a causal relation, but it would surely have to get you thinking and asking more questions, wouldn't it? I'd be interested in Cathy's response.

Ginger Meggs | 22 May 2011  

Bravo Fatima. Very well done!!!

Annabel | 22 May 2011  

Is Fatima a Catholic?

Humanae vitae is official church teaching. Any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation, whether as an end or as a means, is impermissible. (HV 14)

Regardless of future consequences, such as higher or lower abortion rates (I'm thinking higher), it is an intrinsically evil act.

You cannot do evil to achieve good.

HH | 23 May 2011  

That may be your opinion HH (incredible as it seems to me), but does that justify the Church in the Philippines seeking to impose the consequences of that opinion on ALL Filipino women, regardless of their religion or personal needs? Would you prefer to uphold some man-made rules (for that is all they are) about contraception, and thereby condemn Filipino women to continuing ignorance, poverty, and ill-health?

Ginger Meggs | 23 May 2011  


You state that the Church condemns contraception. What do you mean by "the Church"? The hierarchy? The whole People of God?

By Isambard Wilkinson in Madrid 12:00AM GMT 01 Feb 2001
SPANISH Catholic nuns have the right to use contraceptive pills if they live in war zones and face the threat of rape, says a Church leader. The Bishop of Segorbe-Castellon, Juan Antonio Reig, condoned the use of oral contraceptives by nuns to "defend their religious condition".
By Bruce Johnston in Rome
NUNS working in dangerous areas and mentally handicapped women may be given the contraceptive Pill as a defence against rape, a leading Vatican theologian has said.

Father Gonzalo Miranda, who lectures at the Pontifical Academy of the Regina Apostolorum, and is Secretary of the Institute of Bioethics at Rome's Catholic University, said that the use of the Pill is sanctioned in such cases if the women ran "a serious and imminent risk of rape".

In an interview published by the Italian Bishops' Conference official news agency, SIR, which lends his views extra weight, the theologian said: "Contraception is morally illicit when it accompanies a desired sexual act, but when a sexual act is imposed, and not wanted, then contraception represents the only form of protection."

He added: "In such cases the act of taking the Pill . . . is not a true act of contraception from the moral point of view, but only an act of defence."

The question of nuns taking the Pill as a defence in trouble spots around the world was openly authorised long ago in the case of the Congo by Cardinal Pietro Palazzini - even if the Pope's authorisation of the prelate himself was never publicised.

The Pope side-stepped the question and, in a letter to the Bishop of Sarajevo, effectively left the decision up to the conscience of the individual

Charles | 25 May 2011  

Ginger Meggs,

Firstly, the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church is that contraception is intrinsically evil.

According to the catechism, there are three factors that are relevent to the morality of an act. The moral object of the act, the intention of the person, and the circumstances of the act. All three factors must be satisfied for an act to be licit.

The Church has the power to make laws in various areas, an obvious example of this is the requirement to abstain or fast. Obviously the actual act of eating meat on Fridays is not morally illicit. The illicitness of the act stems from the circumstances and intention. Namely disobediaence and possibly the intention to defy the Church. These laws obviously apply only to those belonging to the church.

There are however, various acts that are illict in of themselves. These acts include lying, murder, fornication, and various others. Regardless of what men teach or of the circumstances, these acts are always evil. If the church was tomorrow to preach that fornication is morally permisable, this would not change the intrinsically isorded nature of the act. However, we can rest assured that this will not happen as Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church.

When the Church condems contraception, she does not create a concept, but rather teaches about or makes a comment on the unchangeable objective moral nature of an act. Just as when the church condemns murder it does not make a new rule, so it is with contraception.

Furthermore, the teaching of Paul IV on contraception was not a new teaching but rather an affirmation of what has been taught always and everywhere by Holy Mother Church. Apart from texts from holy scripture including Genesis 38:3-10, Deuteronomy 23:1 and Tobias 6 16:17, various church fathers including Clement of Alexandria, St. Epiphanius, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Caesarius of Arles all taught against contraception.

As to whether the church should be teaching morals required by all men, not just belonging to the Catholic faith, to governments and imposing canonical penalties on its members in government who would go against the churches teachings, one need only to read two passages from holy scripture. The first is Mathew 28:19-20

"Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world."

And the second is Ezechiel 3. The whole chapter is relevent, however, a particularly important verse is 18

"If, when I say to the wicked, Thou shalt surely die: thou declare it not to him, nor speak to him, that he may be converted from his wicked way, and live: the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at thy hand."

Christ tells us that those do not do the will of his Father in Heaven will surely die. If the Church fails to teach at all times what is right, then Christ will hold those, who he has called to be watchmen, accountable for all the sins that they did not preach against.

Francis | 25 May 2011  


the Church that I belong to - the Roman Catholic Church - has stated that artificial contraception is morally impermissible.

Even Fr Hans Kung - no fool- has affirmed that if anything has been infallibly defined by the ordinary magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium 25), it's the prohibition of artificial contraception.

I accept this ruling of the Roman Catholic Church. And I consent that anyone who does not is not in the same religion as I am.

HH | 26 May 2011  

In response to "Ginger Meggs" , I would simply quote the often cited statistic that there are about 80,000 - 100,000 abortions in Australia each year. (Nobody really knows exactly how many because there is a conscientious resistance to keeping accurate records by many in the medical profession)

100,000 abortions in a country where we have completely free access to contraception. My question is: if sex education and contraception will stem the tide of abortions, then why do we still have 100,000 abortions a year?

I work with youth and young adults and my experience is that contraception creates a sense of denial about pregnancy and babies. There is a belief that contraception WILL work and when it fails a young woman doesn't feel responsible for the failure, the CONTRACEPTION is to blame. There is a disconnection with the result of sexual behaviour - the baby. Abortion is the twin of contraception. Abortion is necessary to allow modern women to do what they do. When contraception fails, abortion must be there as the safety net.

I believe that widespread use of contraception has led to the widespread dependence on abortion.

Cathy | 27 May 2011  

Thanks for responding Cathy. At least I think that you and I can have a reasoned discussion. I think we would both agree that abortions are something that we would prefer not to have. At the very least, they represent failure and we ought to be able to do better. You, I suspect, would see abortions as much worse. The reasons we agree may differ, but we both agree that we would like to see fewer abortions and, to the extent possible, none at all. I suspect that we would also agree that if contraception is something to be avoided than it should be avoided because of its ill effects rather than because it might be intrinsically wrong or 'evil' as HH and others argue. Where you and I disagree is on whether the informed use of contraceptives leads to more or fewer abortions. I suggested that the data shows an inverse correlation between more informed use of contraception and abortions but I cannot claim that as proof of a causal relationship. You postulate a thesis – a causal relationship in which the use of contraceptives leads to a lack of responsibility which leads to more abortions – but you don’t have the evidence. In fact the evidence that we have on the VicHealth website seems, to me, to disprove the thesis at least in so far as you say it leads to more abortions. In any case, the article by Fatima is not about the relationship between contraceptives and abortion in a first world country like Australia. It’s about the desire of women in a third world country (and their government) to find practical and safe ways to limit the size of their families, without the need to resort to abortion, so as to enable them to rise above the poverty that binds and grinds them down. The Church has been in the Philippines for over 400 years and has not solved this problem, even with the Billings method. Is it not time to try something different?

Ginger Meggs | 29 May 2011  

I am a Filipino and a Catholic now residing in Australia. I have always believed that responsible parenthood dictates we bring into this world only the number of children we are capable of providing for. Quality of life does matter. Re-education of the masses regarding this issue is a MUST.

Mary | 10 September 2011  

Thank you. Articles like this one are why I keep coming back to Eureka Street.

Alex Prior | 22 May 2012  

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