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PHILIPPINES: ‘Church, a Goliath Against Reproductive Health’

Johanna Son

KUALA LUMPUR , Nov 20 2005 (IPS) - When Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo told the U.N. General Assembly recently to “respect the deep Catholicism of the Filipino people” and said that natural family planning is more effective than artificial means like condoms, Filipino activists reacted with disbelief, others with anger.

That disbelief and anger was still visible at the just-finished 3rd Asia-Pacific Conference on Reproductive Health and Sexuality here, where the role of religion-how it hinders or helps reproductive health-came up repeatedly.

Arroyo’s statement was perceived to be part of a quid pro quo with the powerful Catholic bishops in her South-east Asian country, whom she had met before she left for the United Nations and who have heretofore withheld open criticism of her embattled presidency and impeachment proceedings against her.

But deal or not, the Church in the Philippines- where more than 85 percent of people are Catholic- has always wielded clout on issues like the promotion and use of condoms or the legalisation of divorce. Politicians tend to be wary of going against its edicts, for fear of losing votes.

The country’s annual population growth is two percent-compared to India’s 1.7 percent and Thailand’s 1.3 percent. The Philippines’ fertility rate stands at 3.64 percent. There are more than 470,000 illegal, induced abortions each year, nearly 80,000 of which resulted in complications leading to hospitalisation.

“The government’s bending to the policies of the Church”, is a key force that is setting back reproductive and sexual health in the country, Rhodora Roy-Raterta, executive director of the Family Planning Organisation of the Philippines, told the Nov. 17-20 conference.

“Public policy on family planning choice is also seen as a moral issue, which has drawn the Catholic hierarchy,” she said, calling the institution a Goliath in the battle for better reproductive health.

The Church sees the use of condoms as promoting adultery and Catholic leaders maintain that sex is meant for procreation, so that the use of condoms – even for HIV/AIDS prevention- becomes immoral.

Catholic schools in the Philippines can only talk about natural family planning methods, such as abstinence and withdrawal, and not ‘artificial’ ones like using condoms, just as hospitals run by or linked to Catholic orders do not perform tubal ligation of women who wish to stop getting pregnant.

To family planning groups as well as activists, Arroyo’s statement at the U.N. also eroded the country’s commitment to provide universal access to reproductive and sexual health under the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo.

But well beyond the sphere of formal documents, her statement underlines how the policies of a country can change – or not change -due to the Church’s lobbying with presidents and its hold on individual attitudes.

For campaigners, it also marks the retrogression of reproductive health policies at a time when conservative forces like the U.S. government- formerly a key funder of family planning programmes in the Philippines- have already undercut such schemes in the country.

Donations by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of contraceptive devices will end by 2007, under the Bush administration’s policies against funding schemes that push “abortions as a method of family planning”. This had earlier already prompted the Philippine government to adopt a self-reliant policy on contraceptive supply.

This raises other worries, because Arroyo’s latest statement- a signal from the highest political level- means even more difficult sailing for a reproductive health bill that, because of its sensitivity with Church and conservative groups, was already stuck in the legislative mill.

Raterte also cites other signs of conservative trends, such as attempts to de-list the approval for use of intrauterine devices as well as a bill to ban the use of all artificial family planning methods.

Family planning policy has changed over the years with incumbent presidents, but always in the shadow of the Catholic Church – a Church that has made and unmade presidents in the last two decades.

Former President, Corazon Aquino, whose assumption of the presidency during the 1986 ‘People Power’ uprising was backed by the late Manila archbishop, Jaime Cardinal Sin, studiously supported the Church position against artificial methods of family planning.

Her successor Fidel Ramos, a Protestant president, ushered in a more liberal policy. But subsequent administrations have adhered to the usual Church position.

Juan Romeo Nereus Acosta, a congressman from the Philippines, told the Kuala Lumpur meeting that surveys show that 87 percent of Filipinos legislators favour local structures to provide reproductive health information and services, especially to the poor. Eighty four percent agree that population policy should be seen in the context of human development, he added.

“They are fine when it comes to these motherhood statements,” explained Acosta, a member of the Philippine legislators’ group on population and development.

Raterte said that while the leaders of different faiths will try to see to it that their congregations follow their views, “governments and public officials need to see outside this box” and not adhere to the beliefs of one religion, especially since there is a constitutional separation of Church and state in the Philippines.

To medical anthropologist and University of the Philippines professor Michael Tan, there is also a tough political lesson from Arroyo’s open support of Church policies on family planning: having a woman as president does not mean her advocacy of women-empowering policies.

“Sadly, it was under two women presidents where family planning and reproductive health programmes have regressed, including the current one,” he pointed out. “It reminds us that women can become captives of the gender ideology and carry it as they become head of state,”said Tan.

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