Philippine church hits president on contraception

MANILA, Philippines — Just a few months into his tenure, President Benigno Aquino III has angered the powerful Catholic Church by expressing support for the right to contraception in a televised interview abroad.

The issue of contraception — which is opposed by the Vatican, whether chemical or physical — is a traditional third rail in Philippine politics: Elected officials tend to avoid it, even though Philippine law is generally considered to protect a couple's right to use birth control.

Philippine church officials have argued that contraception is a type of abortion, which is banned by the constitution.

Aquino broke that customary silence over the weekend during a forum with Filipino Americans while on a trip to the U.S., where he suggested his administration would be willing to distribute contraceptives to poor couples who couldn't afford it.

The Rev. Deogracias Yniguez of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines criticized that stance on Tuesday.

"The whole church is against it," Yniguez told The Associated Press.

The church is a powerful voice in a Southeast Asian nation — where the vast majority of the population are practicing Catholics. But proponents of contraception have argued that rapid population growth and high fertility rates have exacerbated crushing poverty, and birth control could be a powerful way to raise living standards.

A church commission dealing with family issues plans to talk to the president about the church's opposition, Yniguez said.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Aquino is willing to sit down with church officials to explain his position, which promotes "responsible parenthood."

The Rev. Melvin Castro, who belonged to the commission, said church officials had hoped the president would follow his late mother, pro-democracy icon Corazon Aquino, who supported the church's stance.

"I won't conceal the fact that we are hurt," Castro said in a statement.

Politicians have long avoided clashing with the church, and it has in past proven its ability to successfully intercede in politics. The bishops mobilized protests that toppled late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and President Joseph Estrada in 2001 over alleged corruption.

In recent years, the church has spearheaded opposition to a reproductive health bill that calls for contraceptives to be provided in government hospitals and sex education to be taught in public schools. The bill is pending in the House of Representatives.