MANILA — It is 6pm in Greenbelt, one of Manila’s high-end shopping malls. Elsewhere, commuters are stopping off for an after-work coffee or browsing through the array of boutiques next door to the chapel. But right in the middle of the mall, a dome-shaped, partially open church is packed for evening Mass — one of four celebrated there each day. Passers-by genuflect or bless themselves, laying down their shopping as they pause on their way.

Out of 92 million people, 85% of Filipinos (78.2 million) are Catholic, and the country is well known for eye-catching displays of public devotion. During the election season, daily vigils and prayer services were held all over the country. Inside the election commission headquarters, statues of the Virgin Mary and posters exhorting the recitation of novenas sat between nuts-and-bolts election information for parties, voters, candidates and media.

An ongoing battle over a “reproductive health” bill looks set to roll on into the new administration. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the son of former Philippine President Corazon Aquino and the apparent victor in the race, opposes the Church’s position on the bill. After Corazon Aquino died last August, a national catharsis pushed her low-profile son Noynoy into the spotlight. Attempting to discern what to do, he went on retreat in a Carmelite monastery before settling on a presidential run.

With 90% of the votes counted by May 13, Aquino had 40%, with former President Joseph Estrada, who also backs the abortion-rights bill, second at 25%. Early front-runner and billionaire Manny Villar finished a distant third at 11%. He publicly backed the Church’s take on abortion, but well before he spoke out his popularity was on the slide due to corruption allegations.

The Church says that the bill is contrary to the 1987 Constitution, as it promotes the use of abortifacients. The constitution enshrines the right to life from conception.

Filipinos’ Views

However, it is not clear what the results say about Filipinos’ views on the bill. There are a few possible reasons for this. First, politics in the Philippines is personality-oriented, with issues and parties often secondary, as has been noted by Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales, the archbishop of Manila.

That lends itself to mixed messages. Sister Mary Pilar Verzosa runs a shelter for abused women and girls. She also founded the country’s pro-life movement 35 years ago. She told the Register that “being pro-life means more than just supporting the Church position on the R.H. bill.” The often brutal reality of life in parts of the Philippines is seen in its grinding poverty, and more directly, in Muslim and Communist rebellions and terror campaigns. There are dozens of private militias linked to politicians, and hired hits are all too common.

Sister Pilar welcomed Villar’s support for the Church’s view. However his ostentatious campaign spending came across as a distasteful parody of his rags-to-riches/self-made man background, according to Sister Pilar. “Why didn’t he use some of his wealth in a better way and live up to his talk about being pro-poor?” she asked.

In a country where 40% of the population is below the national poverty line, with another 8% of Filipinos working overseas and providing an economic lifeline to sustain millions of families back home, breadline concerns likely predominate. So voters are not necessarily in tune with all the issues.

Two surveys carried out before the election attest to the difficulty in establishing what millions of Catholic Filipinos think or even know about the bill debate. Conducted by the Filipino affiliate of Gallup, the Family Research Survey found that 73% of respondents did not know the bill existed.

The same survey found that over 90% of those who took part opposed the bill, as it prioritizes the biological aspects of sex education over the moral issues.

But blurring the lines even more, a separate pre-election survey by the Pulse Asia group claimed that 64% of Filipinos would vote for candidates who publicly promote “modern” methods of family planning.

The country’s population has increased from 48 million in 1980 and 66 million in 1990 to 92 million today. While the numbers loom large, annual population growth has decreased, having reached a zenith of 3% in the 1960s.

On the surface, this might lend weight to the views espoused by proponents of population control, backed by Western donor countries and non-governmental organizations, who are pushing the legislation. Incoming President Aquino said: “I believe we have a population problem. I believe I have a responsibility to help so that our children have the opportunity to live better lives.”


So does Noynoy’s landslide mean the country is lining up to support his take on “reproductive health”?

Msgr. Pedro Quitorio is spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Speaking to the Register near Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, the city’s former Spanish colonial bastion, he said that “the country’s most pressing problems today are bad governance and corruption.” Aquino made “going after those who steal” a cornerstone of his campaign. This compelling and dynamic-sounding catch phrase added to his reputation for clean politics and apparent disinterest in material gain.

Widespread political corruption has practical implications for some of the issues the bill seeks to address.

“It talks about maternal health care, and that is necessary,” said Msgr. Quitorio. “But the government is already obliged to build a decent health system in rural areas; there is a budget to build clinics. But when funds are allocated for this, they disappear, and the clinics have not been built. This is what needs to be tackled.”

Since 1998, neighboring Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation — has made remarkable strides in establishing a working democracy. It is arguably now the priority country in Southeast Asia for United States foreign policy-makers, outranking official allies Thailand and the Philippines.

Indonesia’s 17,000 islands have a population of more than 250 million, yet it is rare to hear of Western governments or NGOs promoting the idea that it is overpopulated.

Could a better-run country led by more honest politicians do something about the country’s poor economy, better enabling it to sustain a large population?

The question now is: Will Aquino tackle the vested interests and often violent cronyism that so hampers his country? This will prove more challenging, as well as more beneficial, than confronting the Church over a bill which will see, as Sister Pilar put it, “grade 5 students receiving demonstrations about how to put on a condom.”

Simon Roughneen filed this report from Manila.