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Nearer the Church, Farther From MDGs

BANGKOK, Sep 4 2012 (IPS) - When Philippines President Benigno Aquino III delivered his annual state of the union address in July, he appealed to the country’s lawmakers to break a  deadlock on progressive birth control laws in this predominantly Catholic nation.

An estimated 15 Filipina women currently die from pregnancy-related complications every day – up from a daily average of 11 a decade ago – and many of these are teenagers from among the urban and rural poor, according to a government survey.

In the decade after the law was originally proposed, unintended pregnancies have risen by 54 percent, according to the government’s ‘Family Health Survey-2011.’  The bill seeks to addresses this situation by offering contraceptive options, reproductive health care and sex education in schools.

According to the survey, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) reached 221 deaths for every 10,000 live births during the 2006 – 2010 period, marking a 36 percent increase from the 162 deaths during the 2000 – 2005 period.

In early August, the President’s allies in the House of Representatives had occasion to cheer as lawmakers in the Congress voted to end the fractious debate that had trapped ‘The Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population Development Act’ in a Lower House parliamentary committee.

But, as the reproductive health (RH) bill makes its way through the Senate and the House for amendments, its sponsors face filibustering by a vocal minority trying to delay passage of the bill before Oct. 15 when the term of the current Congress expires.

“The anti-RH forces know that at the moment the pro-RH forces are likely to have the majority, so their strategy is to prolong the parliamentary process,” Congressman Walden Bello of the Citizens Action Party told IPS in an interview.

“Once we get to mid-October, it will be very difficult to muster quorums to take up legislation since most members of the House will be busy campaigning for reelection (for next May’s election),” Bello said.

According to Bello, the strategy of the vocal minority – about 120 members in the 285-strong Lower House –  is to leverage the political influence that the Catholic Church wields in this archipelago of 96.5 million people.

“The anti-RH forces hope that some of the pro-RH forces will waver and decide against voting for the bill for fear that the Catholic Church hierarchy will tell their Catholic constituents to vote against them,” Bello said.

The clout of the Church is playing out in the  Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University where some 190 academics supporting the RH bill have been threatened with heresy proceedings, according to local media.

“The first principle of canon law is that we don’t allow teaching that is against the official teachings of the Church,” Bishop Leonardo Medroso told a local radio station in an interview. “If there is somebody who is giving instructions against the teachings of the Church, then they have to be investigated immediately.”

The Church has also backed street protests against the controversial bill and one “people power” gathering drew an estimated 10,000 people in the capital.

Arguments trotted out against the bill at such meetings include loss of family values in a ‘contraceptive society’ and state interference in what is seen by many as a religious domain.

“The RH bill has become a political question because of the role of the Church in opposing it,” says Harry Roque, professor of constitutional law at the University of the Philippines. “The influence of the Church is ever persuasive.”

“But the reality is that we need this bill,” Roque said in a telephone interview from Manila. “It is important for the President to do what is right. He is deeply committed to supporting this bill.”

To do otherwise would expose the Aquino administration to charges of  being remiss in meeting United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG)  of slashing by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) by 2015 against what it was in 1990.

Local women’s rights groups and U.N. agencies monitoring the country’s progress in meeting MDG 5 (one of eight goals) relating to maternal health and reducing the MMR hold that the Philippines is likely to miss the target.

“The first RH bill, which was proposed in the Upper and Lower House in 2001, was meant to “respond to the various RH problems in an integrated and rights-based fashion,” says Junice L. Demeterio-Melgar, executive director of Likhaan, a centre for women’s rights and health that is backed by a national network of grassroots activists.

“It specifically wanted to call attention to existing but essentially tabooed issues like adolescent RH, post-abortion care and sex education,” Demetrio-Melgar said.

“A law was needed to mainstream the integrated health and rights-based approach, as well as to override the devolution of the Philippines healthcare system,” she told IPS. “The bill was meant to institutionalise the department of health’s RH programmes.”

The non-passage of the bill has adversely affected lingering poverty in a country  where nearly 20 percent live below the U.N.’s 1.25 dollars-a-day poverty line.

“The richest women want 1.9 children and have two; the poorest women want four children but have six,” says Demeterio-Melgar. “Unintended fertility keeps families poor and families with more than three children have difficulty feeding their children and sending them to school.”

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