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Philippines bishops' contraception conundrum

  • 18 May 2011

The 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