Gloves come off as Church weighs in on birth control

Tarlac City, Philippines - As their priest listed the reasons why a bill promoting birth control should not be made law in the Philippines, the congregation of San Sebastian Cathedral nodded their agreement.

"This is not a fight between the Church and the government," Melvin Castro said. "This is a struggle between good and evil," he told his parishioners gathered for mass in Tarlac City, 105 kilometres north of Manila.

The struggle he referred to is the acrimonious debate sweeping the country over the Reproductive Health Bill, currently before Congress, which would make artificial birth control more accessible.

Catholic priests and bishops all over the Philippines have been calling on worshippers to oppose the bill, alleging that it would lead to decadence and undermine morality.

Some have even threatened to excommunicate supporters of the bill, while Catholic universities were giving extra points to students for posting statements against the proposed law on social networking sites.

Local administrations are also joining in - as the bill headed for Congress, a village in southern Manila started requiring prescriptions to buy condoms, despite the move being illegal.

Even before its campaign against the bill, the Catholic Church maintained a long tradition of opposing artificial birth control in the Philippines, where condoms and contraceptive pills are already available to those with the education and money to buy them.

Doctor Esmeraldo Ilem, chief of the family planning unit of the government-run Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, said the Church's influence is strong, particularly in rural areas.

Ilem, who conducts outreach family planning programmes in remote towns, recalled an incident last year in the southern Philippines where only three out of more than 100 women who signed up for free tubal ligation - a form of sterilization - actually showed up on the day of the operation.

"We later learned that the town parish priest scolded those women who wanted to undergo ligation," he said, "so they decided not to have the procedure."

At present, the Philippines is the 13th most populous country in the world with over 94 million people, more than 80 per cent of whom profess to the Catholic faith. The population is growing by over 2 per cent annually.

The new bill proposes to make condoms and contraceptive pills available free to the poor, and to provide education programmes to inform all couples of the full range of family planning options.

The law would also provide for some sex education for pre-teens, a particularly contentious issue for the Church, but an initiative welcomed by development groups.

Emma Cruz, a non-government organization worker and advocate of the Reproductive Health bill, said the best argument for the proposed law can be found slum areas where girls as young as 12 were already bearing children.

"Under the bill, pre-puberty girls would have education about reproductive health and sexuality so they would know how to take care of their body," she said.

Cruz, a mother to seven children herself - four more than she would have wanted - said the proposed law also upholds women's general right to health care choices.

"The bill provides women with choices. Women know our bodies best so we must be given the widest range of choices possible," she said. "The Church should not impose on us what they think is right for us."

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the bill is based on the misunderstanding that it promotes abortion, which is illegal in the Philippines unless the pregnancy endangers the mother's life.

But Congressman Edcel Lagman, the main author of the bill, said that it "does not in any way endorse abortion as a family planning method nor does it propose to change the country's current law prohibiting abortion."

"There's a lot of misinformation about the bill but I believe that my colleagues will see through this black propaganda and enact the bill," he said, referring to the upcoming debate.

Above all, the bill aims to achieve "the promotion of the right to reproductive health and reproductive self-determination by making available to couples who want to plan their families all forms of family planning options as long as they are legal, medically safe and effective," Lagman said.

The plenary sessions on the bill were scheduled for Tuesday, but had to be postponed when the air conditioning failed. No date has been set for the rescheduled debate, but it was expected to resume in the coming days.