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PHILIPPINES: Catholics Risk Excommunication Over Reproductive Rights

Kara Santos

MANILA, Jan 6 2011 (IPS) - Support for reproductive health legislation, popularly known as the RH Bill here, has snowballed on social websites and among peer networks, yet passage and funding of the bill remain uncertain. Catholic bishops have long used the threat of excommunication in the raging debates over use of modern contraceptive methods – such as pills, IUDs and condoms – in the Southeast-Asian nation of over 92 million, 85 percent of whom are Catholic.

Challenging the Church over reproductive rights. Credit: Kara Santos

Challenging the Church over reproductive rights. Credit: Kara Santos

In response to the Catholic Church’s vehement opposition to the bill, activists staged the first ‘Excommunication Party’ as 2010 closed.

The event dubbed, “If Supporting the RH Bill Means Excommunication, Excommunicate Me!” was hosted by secular group Filipino Freethinkers and was advertised as a night of “dinner, entertainment and dissent.”

There are six RH bills pending at the House, all allowing the use of artificial methods of family planning, like condoms and pills – the Church allows couples to use only the natural family planning method.

It is estimated that 4,000 babies swell the country’s population every day.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has threatened excommunication for politicians who support the RH Bill, which provides for universal access to methods and information on birth control and maternal care. Catholic groups have claimed that some artificial contraceptives actually induce abortion and that the RH Bill promotes a “culture of death and immorality” by promoting abortion and promiscuity among youth.


In a recent incident at the Manila Cathedral, members of Pro-Life Philippines – led by Eric Manalang, their president and one of the RH Bill’s most outspoken opponents – barred a group of students, urban poor mothers and young professionals from attending a prayer service tackling the RH Bill.

“Satan, get away from us! You should have asked your mother to abort you,” were just a few of the statements hurled by Pro-Life members in a video captured by the Filipino Freethinkers, which was screened during the party.

“Manalang called even the devout Roman Catholics among us Satan,” said Red Tani, president of the Filipino Freethinkers in a statement. “He branded the Catholics among us oxymorons, as if it were a contradiction to be pro-RH and remain Catholic. If the church hierarchy thinks supporting the RH Bill means heresy, then by all means – excommunicate us!” Tani said.

Said to be the first of its kind, the excommunication party featured live music, solidarity messages by pro-RH personalities, improvisational poetry and theatrical performances on reproductive health issues and abortion and adult games. Guests also signed a symbolic “excommunication document,” a copy of which would be sent to each participant’s parish and the CBCP, to show their support for the cause.

“I think it’s wonderful that freedom of expression means something – that people are finally speaking their mind and expressing what they feel in a very creative manner,” performance artist and activist Carlos Celdran told IPS.

In September, Celdran was jailed for “offending the feelings of the faithful” after he protested against the Catholic Church’s opposition to the RH Bill during an ecumenical service at the Manila Cathedral.

Of the harassment of students at the Manila Cathedral, Celdran had this to say: “Whatever was done was done in a very peaceful way. It was an absolute epitome of freedom of expression and you should not give it up and take it for granted.”

A message board near the entrance of the venue became a graffiti wall for people to weigh in on their thoughts about excommunication and RH debate. “Keep your dogmatism to yourself,” one person wrote directing their statement to the Catholic Church. “Stay out of my vagina, my vagina my rules!” wrote another.

In his Christmas message, CBCP president Bishop Nereo Odchimar equated the RH Bill to terrorism and said that: “With the approval of RH Bill, a woman’s womb can be a ferocious threat to those who are yet to be born,” he said in an official statement.

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio, professor and director of the University of the Philippines Centre for Women’s Studies (CWS) told IPS that the high turnout at the event was emblematic of the public’s reaction to how the church had been playing the “excommunication card” wrongly in the country.

“It amazes me that so many people who are Catholic, and who don’t even want to stop calling themselves Catholic, came here for an excommunication,” said Claudio. “Perhaps there’s something about how Catholic spirituality is breaking away from traditional standards of uncritical acceptance to a spirituality that is more personal.”

Despite the hasty organisation of the event, tickets for the excommunication party were sold out and statement shirts were in high demand – reinforcing public support for the passage of the RH Bill.

The latest surveys from public opinion polling body Social Weather Stations (SWS) show that 71 percent of Filipinos favour the passage of the RH Bill, while 76 percent want family planning education in public schools.

In a press statement Elizabeth Angsioco, National Chair of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines (DSWP), which was part of the group blocked during the mass, said that lives were being lost while the debates over the RH Bill raged on.

“We believe the bill’s passage is imminent. This is long overdue,” said Angsioco. “Poor women continue to die of preventable pregnancy and childbirth complications. These unnecessary deaths and almost-deaths must end.”

Figures from the United Nations Development Fund For Women (UNIFEM) show that at least eleven women die every day in the country due to childbirth-related complications.

 
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