MANILA, Philippines — Despite a strongly worded, last-minute plea from the nation’s Catholic bishops and a large laity-led demonstration outside the halls of congress, Philippine lawmakers in both houses this week passed the hotly contested Reproductive Health Bill that promotes contraceptives for poor people and opens the way for the legal use of abortifacient drugs.
Viewed by opponents as a population-control measure promoted by international agencies such as the United Nations Population Fund, the "RH Bill," as it is commonly known, also provides for contraceptive-based sex education.
The legislation would require government-sanctioned sex education for adults, middle-schoolers and high-school children, as well as a population-control program that includes fully subsidized contraceptives under government health insurance.
President Benigno Aquino, who was elected two years ago on a platform that included support for the bill, was expected to sign the bill before Christmas, after the two houses completed a bicameral session to harmonize their two versions.
In a heartfelt statement titled “Contraception Is Corruption” that was released the day before the vote, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan called on lawmakers to vote according to conscience and the Catholic values underpinning Filipino culture and law. Writing for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Archbishop Villegas stated that the “RH Bill is being gift-wrapped to look like a gift for maternal health care,” yet it “will put the moral fiber of our nation at risk.”
He added, “A contraceptive mentality is the mother of an abortion mentality. The wide and free accessibility of contraceptives, even to the youth, will result in the destruction of family life and in greater violence against women.”
The poor will not be served by ingesting powerful hormones to curb fertility; instead, funds allocated for free contraceptives should be used to provide real assistance, the archbishop argued. “The poor can rise from their misery through more accessible education, better hospitals and less government corruption.”
Remarking on the fact that young people will be taught that sex outside marriage is fine as long as it is “safe,” Archbishop Villegas said, “Is this moral? Those who corrupt the minds of children will invoke Divine wrath upon themselves.”
The statement was designed to be read at all Masses on the Third Sunday of Advent, which featured the Gospel reading of John the Baptist calling people to repentance and instructing workers and soldiers how to live their lives. Dec. 16 also marked the beginning of the Philippine Misa de Gallo (Mass of the Rooster) tradition in which Catholics gather at dawn liturgies for nine consecutive days before Christmas.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” (2370).
“Legitimate intentions on the part of the spouses do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means ... for example, direct sterilization or contraception” (2399).
The fact that the RH Bill was passed despite strong opposition from the bishops and an appeal to the nation’s religious traditions indicated new limits on the Church’s influence, which for decades had exercised great moral power in the Philippines, including a lead role in the "People Power" movement against dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was deposed in 1986.
Supporters hailed the passage of the bill, which had been debated in numerous sessions over the course of 14 years, as a historic breakthrough for maternal health in a country where the poorest often go without adequate medical care.
Sen. Edgardo Angara, who voted for the measure, called the bill “an affirmation of human rights,” asserting that the entire population, which includes Muslims, Protestants, Buddhists and atheists, should not be forced to live under the moral laws of the Catholic Church. Catholics make up more than 80% of the nation’s 94 million people.
In a press conference before the vote, Aquino repeated a story he had told before, of meeting a 16-year-old mother while visiting an extremely poor enclave in the capital city of Manila. The young woman, the president said, had just given birth to her second child with her common-law husband, and two years later was now pregnant again with a new man.
“You have a responsibility to those being born into this world,” he told reporters. Poor people especially need information on family planning and access to free contraceptives for the sake of the children they do have, he claimed.
Pointing out the bill’s focus on the poor, opponents call the measure a thinly veiled population-reduction plan with eugenic overtones. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, though contraceptives are legal and widely available to those who can afford them. Thus, opponents note, the main effect of the RH Bill will be to provide free contraceptives — some of them abortifacient in nature — to poor people who presently cannot afford them.
With strong pressure from President Aquino to vote before Christmas recess, both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the measure on Dec. 17, with significant majorities. The vote in the House reflected a sea change in support, since, just five days earlier, representatives had voted narrowly in favor of the bill on its second reading, 113-104, with more than 50 lawmakers abstaining.
In view of that narrow victory margin, Aquino took the unusual step of certifying the bill as “urgent” and thus eligible for an emergency third reading and expedited final vote, an executive privilege usually reserved for the dispersal of disaster-relief funds.
Opposition to the bill also included a procession of thousands of laypeople and clergy from a nearby church to the congressional building in Quezon City, a Manila suburb, with dozens of red-shirted anti-RH Bill advocates filling the gallery as lawmakers debated and voted.
A new group, Catholic Vote Philippines, also was formed in response to the bill, with the goal of making the voting record of every legislator known within his or her own district before the May elections.
In addition, opponents accused the president of promising government funds for the districts of legislators who voted in favor and decried the presence of administration officials in the halls of the legislature during the debates.
The close tally in the Dec. 12 vote, following intensive lobbying by the president and pro-contraception international organizations, had given the bishops and other Catholic opponents hope that the vote might turn against the bill in the final reading. But the result in the House was 133-79 in favor, while the vote in the smaller Senate chamber was 13-8.
Following the vote, opponents pledged to continue their struggle against the RH Bill. The Thomas More Society of the Philippines and other legal groups promised a court challenge, since the nation’s constitution recognizes the “sanctity of family life” and the “natural and primary right and duty of parents in rearing” their children.
Officials from the bishops' conference said they would support efforts to challenge the bill before the nation’s Supreme Court.
Church leaders will also continue to highlight flaws in the pro-contraception arguments.
“In the long term, we are concentrating on educating our people on the issues and showing how the bill is not the answer to their problems,” said Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, director of communications for the bishops’ conference.
“This vote was not about conviction or principle,” Msgr. Quitorio said. “It was about party lines and pork barrels, so we know that they stand on a weak foundation. No vote can change the truths about family life, procreation, human dignity and the person created in the image of God. We have the truth on our side.”
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.