Filipino Catholic groups band together to back poll candidates who oppose contraceptives law

Manila, Philippines - Filipino Catholic groups launched a campaign Monday to try to muster millions of votes for senatorial candidates who opposed a controversial contraceptives law passed last year and prove that the church remains a force to be reckoned with in Asia's largest Catholic nation.

Catholic leader Mike Velarde said his El Shaddai group and dozens of other lay organizations are joining together to campaign in the May 13 midterm elections for pro-church candidates who could battle possible future legislation to legalize same-sex marriage, divorce and abortion.

The groups could deliver up to 6 million votes in about 3,000 Catholic communities across the country, enough to ensure the electoral victory of pro-church candidates who are vying for 12 of 24 Senate seats in next month's elections, Velarde said. The new movement wants to prove that the influential Catholic church's clout remains formidable, he said.

"The Catholic church is not dead," Velarde told a news conference. "It is alive; it has power."

The Responsible Parenthood Law, which would provide state funding for contraceptives, was passed by lawmakers late last year despite the dominant Catholic church's staunch opposition. The Supreme Court has delayed the law's implementation until June to give proponents and petitioners who questioned its legality a chance to argue their cases before the high tribunal.

Catholic leaders consider the law an attack on the church's core values and say it promotes promiscuity and fosters abortion. The government says the law would help the poor with family planning and provide for maternal health care.

The Philippines has a population of 94 million and one of Asia's highest birth rates. Nearly half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unwanted, according to the U.N. Population Fund, and a third of those end up aborted in back-alley clinics.

Political analyst Ramon Casiple said the Catholic groups' campaign is not likely to have a major impact on voters — more than half of whom are 35 years old or younger — who will probably favour candidates who would provide them stability rather than vote based mainly on their stand on contraceptives.

"We have a young generation of voters to whom the big issue is the future: Can a candidate give me a job, run the country well and fight corruption?" Casiple said.

Ana Maria Tabunda of independent pollster Pulse Asia said it would be difficult to validate whether Catholics vote as a bloc based on an issue without an exit poll in which religion and choices of voters could be asked and analyzed. A Pulse Asia survey last month showed that the 12 leading senatorial choices of voters included both lawmakers who voted for and against the Responsible Parenthood bill last year.

The law has pitted the Catholic church against popular President Benigno Aquino III and his followers who backed the legislation. Its passage has fostered perceptions that the church's moral and political authority has waned in the country over the decades.

Aquino signed the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 quietly without customary fanfare last December to avoid controversy.

The World Health Organization in the Western Pacific honoured Aquino on Monday for backing the law.