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POPULATION-PHILIPPINES: Catholic Church Damns The Pill

Stella Gonzales

MANILA, Jul 22 2008 (IPS) - As World Population Day was being marked on Jul. 11, Tess and Andy were attending a family planning seminar as a requirement for their forthcoming wedding. It turned out to be window into one of the major problems besetting the Philippine population programme.

Because their seminar was conducted by a doctor-volunteer in a Catholic church in Manila, Tess and Andy (surname suppressed) were expecting the facilitator to toe the church’s line against artificial contraception. But they did not anticipate the kind of information that was given them and several other couples.

They said the doctor told seminar participants that the pill was an abortifacient (a device that acts after human life has begun) and that condoms do not protect against HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). “Yet she did not present any scientific evidence to back her claims,” Tess told IPS.

Tess was stunned when the doctor, again with no proof, said some babies had been born with an intrauterine device (IUD) stuck in their heads.

Andy, a Scandinavian who has travelled to various parts of the world, said the seminar was “one of the weirdest” experiences he has ever had. As he listened to the doctor, Andy said he was thinking to himself: “This can’t be happening. It’s something that happens only in the movies.”

He said that while he was aware that people in some African countries were being told that condoms do not work against HIV, further aggravating the AIDS problem there, he never expected to hear the same line being disseminated in a country such as the Philippines.

Tess said the doctor promoted only natural family planning methods, where couples who do not wish to bear children are supposed to have sex only when the woman is not fertile. “I asked what couples were supposed to do when they wanted to have sex during an ‘unsafe’ period. She said we should go watch a movie or just look at each other,” Tess recounted.

Tess and Andy said the doctor appeared to believe in what she was saying, and what made matters worse was that the other seminar participants seemed to be convinced and even took down notes.

“What bothered me was that the doctor was making these claims without any scientific basis and that she said she had been doing this for the past 20 years,” Tess said.

Andy said: “It gave me the chills because I know about the population problem in the Philippines.”

The country’s population, with an annual growth rate of 2.34 percent, is projected to hit 90 million this year. Last year, the Philippines’ human development index (HDI) ranking fell seven places, to number 90. In comparison, its South-east Asian neighbours Vietnam and Indonesia saw significant improvements in their HDI.

President Gloria Arroyo, despite clamour from various sectors, has refused to lay down a comprehensive national population policy. Arroyo, a devout Catholic, has instead left it to local governments to come up with their own programmes.

Former President Fidel Ramos said Arroyo’s “ambiguousness” towards her population policy “has put mothers’ lives and health, together with their babies, at risk for the sake of political expediency and religious traditionalism.”

During his presidency, Ramos implemented a population programme that resulted in bigger funding for reproductive health, more family planning workers, and – at the end of his term in 1998 – a lower population growth rate.

The Catholic church, which is seen to be politically influential because 85 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, vehemently opposed the programme. But Ramos, a Protestant, stood his ground. The next president, Joseph Estrada, also had a strong population programme but was ousted after only three years in power.

Arroyo, who took over in 2001, hewed close to the church’s stand and has not changed her position on the issue. Ramos said one problem with Arroyo’s policy is that she wants local governments to invest in their own family planning programmes, yet not all have the financial capability to do so.

Although some local governments were able to institute their own programmes that included both natural and artificial contraception methods, others were more selective, sticking to what the church preached.

In the capital city of Manila, then mayor Joselito Atienza, a Catholic, issued an order in 2000 promoting “responsible parenthood” and upholding natural family planning methods, but discouraging artificial contraceptive methods at the city’s hospitals and health centres. Non-government organisations (NGOs) had to conduct clandestine campaigns to reach poor families who needed access to artificial methods. According to a study, the order contributed to high rates of unplanned pregnancies.

Although he has not formally withdrawn Atienza’s order, the incumbent mayor, Alfredo Lim, has allowed the promotion of artificial methods in the city. During the recent World Population Day, his administration held a family planning fair in the impoverished district of Tondo, an event swamped by thousands of people.

In nearby Quezon City, Joseph Juico, a local councillor, said he was moving his scheduled wedding from a Catholic church in the city to another venue after a priest allegedly threatened not to give him communion on his wedding day because of a population management ordinance he had introduced. That measure, approved earlier this year, provides access to artificial contraceptives and free sterilisation.

Adding fuel to the fire was a pastoral letter issued a few weeks ago by a Catholic bishop saying that politicians who push for “abortion” should not be given communion in parishes. In the eyes of the Catholic church, contraceptives such as the pill induce “abortion.”

The pastoral letter was apparently in reaction to reports that several members of Congress were going pushing for a bill that would provide for a national policy on reproductive health and population development. That measure includes “sexuality education” for elementary and high school students and the allocation of a “gender and development” budget for the Commission on Population.

Ramos said that if Arroyo and the Catholic bishops looked at the facts objectively, “they would appreciate that those who advocate and prefer modern, though artificial, family planning methods are not abortionists but are responsible Filipinos who are equally caring about mothers, children and families as some Catholic diehards claim to be’’.

A religious group, the Interfaith Partnership for the Promotion of Responsible Parenthood (IPPRP), also ran to the defence of the bill’s proponents. It said the proposed legislation would in fact prevent abortions.

Studies have shown that there are about 1.4 million unplanned pregnancies in the country each year, of which one-third ends in abortion, a criminal act in the Philippines.

“Not all Christian bishops are opposed to the bill,” said IPPRP spokesman Bishop Fred Magbanua. He said the bill would “provide mothers their right to have safer pregnancies by giving them access to adequate and correct information, and services on reproductive health’’.

The group said Filipinos were already suffering from the government’s inability to provide basic services.

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