MANILA — When Philippine lawmakers return on July 25 for the second session of the 15th Congress, they will continue debates on two reproductive-health bills that would undermine the Catholic culture of the populous Asian nation.
Similar in content, both the House and Senate bills seek to mandate government counseling on artificial contraceptives and promote sexual education for children as early as fifth grade.
Backed by powerful international population-control groups, the bills also recommend two children per family as a way to reduce poverty and foster economic development. The Philippines has a population of more than 90 million, about 82% of whom are Catholic.
The bills are commonly referred to together as the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill, although proponents recently have been using the term Responsible Parenthood Bill.
Introduced in various forms for a number of years, the bills have met effective opposition from the nation’s Catholic bishops and popular opinion. Yet opponents worry that they have a better chance than ever of passing this year due to the strong support of President Benigno Aquino III, who was elected in May 2010. He is the son of the late Philippine president, Corazon Aquino.
“The chances for the RH bill being passed this year are higher than the previous 14 or so congresses. Those who are for it have exerted so much effort this year in terms of lobby and social campaign — and consequently for funds — than in the previous years,” said Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). “On the other hand, I have never seen the Catholic Church and pro-life groups campaign so hard than in this congress.”
The bishops’ response to the bills include radio, TV and Internet spots highlighting the positive aspects of population growth, with a message that people are a solution to societal problems and not a cause. They also have endorsed a more widespread program of teaching natural family planning (NFP) in parishes as a licit method of responsible parenthood, which allows couples to limit family size for serious reasons without resorting to contraceptives.
Claiming that some methods of contraception may actually cause very early abortions, the CBCP issued a statement that says, “Advocates contend that the RH bill promotes reproductive health. The RH bill certainly does not. It does not protect the health of the sacred human life that is being formed or born. The very name ‘contraceptive’ already reveals the anti-life nature of the means that the RH bill promotes. These artificial means are fatal to human life, either preventing it from fruition or actually destroying it.”
President Aquino has met with bishops on the bill and earlier this year issued a five-point statement saying that he is against mandating family size and favors allowing parents the right to determine the number of children they have. He also said that he is against abortion and would make access to natural family planning equal to that of contraceptives, adding that the “state must respect each individual’s right to follow his or her conscience and religious convictions on matters and issues pertaining to the unity of family and the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death.”
Yet, he also stated: “In a situation where couples, especially the poor and disadvantaged ones, are in no position to make an informed judgment, the state has the responsibility to so provide.”
That statement has opponents wondering if it means an enforced limit to family size among the poor.
Boxer Weighs In
Battle lines have been drawn between the supporters and the opponents of the bill, leaving the country sharply divided. The Catholic Church is joined by many Protestant and Muslim groups and by politicians and celebrities in opposing the bill.
One of the more prominent celebrities against the bill is world-boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, now a congressman himself.
Last month, he sparred verbally on the House floor with the bill’s author, Rep. Edcel Lagman, about a number of provisions, including the requirement for sex education, the two-child recommendation, and the allotment of funds for contraceptives, which Pacquiao said would be better used for programs to alleviate poverty.
“Why don’t we just craft a law that will provide the solution to the nation’s poverty? There’s a lot of us here who can find the answers to poverty, not like the RH bill, that, to my mind, is too divisive. We have a saying: United we stand, divided we fall,” Pacquiao said in the debate, with a mix of Filipino and English.
Supporters of the bill are also numerous and notable, among them Lea Salonga, a singer and actress known for her Broadway performances in Miss Saigon and Les Miserables and singing roles for Disney movies.
In an interview with Philippine media, she said, “My stand is that I am for it. I’ve been consistently supporting it.” She added that she was willing to be “one of the ambassadors” for the RH bill should the Aquino administration offer her such a role.
In addition to celebrities, a number of prominent Catholic scholars are vocal in support, including some 60 faculty members of Ateneo de Manila, a Jesuit-run university. Reprimanding his fellow Jesuits on campus, Father James Reuter said in a radio interview last May that the faculty members were free to leave. Last month, Father Reuter softened his stand, but added, “You have to be sure that you don’t have a teacher in the Catholic [faith] teaching something contradictory to the Catholic Church. The teachings of the Catholic Church are a body of truth that is crystal clear, and you should not teach something contradicting it.”
Much of the energy behind the bill, however, comes from international groups such as the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA). The U.N.’s Millennial Development Goals have been publicly cited by RH bill supporters as a reason for passage.
The pressure has been “intense and sustained,” said Piero Tozzi, global senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a U.S.-based group that monitors religious liberty.
He pointed to a 2009 forum sponsored by UNFPA in which the European Union ambassador to the Philippines chided the Philippine Congress for not passing the RH bill while appearing to link increased foreign aid with more widespread and effective distribution of contraceptives.
Tozzi also noted UNFPA’s bankrolling of a controversial “Adolescent Reproductive Health Program” that was halted in court last year after parental-rights activists brought a court action to halt the sex-ed program that they said encouraged promiscuity and violated parental rights.
Jo Imbong, executive director of the Philippine bishops’ conference, said that the bill runs counter to provisions of the nation’s 1987 Constitution, such as the right to life “of the unborn from conception, the right of spouses to found a family according to their religious convictions, the primary right and duty of parents in the education of their children in morality, conscience rights and freedom of speech.”
She added that the bill “is a foreign agenda making its way into our rich culture. It is an insult to the Filipino people.”
Maria Caulfield writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.