By Kalinga Seneviratne
MANILA, Aug 1 2008 (IPS) – A growing and heated debate in this predominantly Catholic country revolves around the church’s uncompromising stance against the use of contraceptive devices that is said to be contributing to poverty and affecting the quality of life for many Filipinos.
A group of 15 bishops led some 12,000 protestors at a rally here on Jul. 25 against a proposed House of Representatives bill aimed at devising a national reproductive health policy.
Pulling the other way opinion pieces in the national press have been critical of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s pro-Catholic church stand on population issues. They urged her to make a bold anti-poverty statement in the State of the Nation Address (SONA) that was delivered on Monday.
Arroyo did not oblige. Her critics were disappointed with the SONA delivered live over national television and radio. Far from endorsing the reproductive health bill she defended the bishops’ stand.
“By promoting natural family planning and female education, we have curbed population growth to 2.04 percent during our administration, down from 2.36 percent in the 1990s when artificial birth control was pushed. Our campaign spreads awareness of responsible parenthood regarding birth spacing. Long years pushing contraception made it synonymous to family planning. Therefore, informed choice should mean letting more couples, who are mostly Catholic, know about natural family planning,” said Arroyo, a devout Catholic, in her address.
Addressing last week’s rally, the Archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Borbón Cardinal Rosales, called on Catholics to exercise self-discipline and self-control, arguing that such virtues will contribute to a more disciplined and non-corruptible nation. “If there is discipline in marital bed, there is discipline in the streets, there is discipline in schools, there is discipline in government,’’ said the Archbishop.
Columnist Dahli Aspillera, writing in the ‘Malaya’ newspaper, pointed out that “when a Filipino husband comes home frustrated, tired, drunk, in bed with his wife, she hasn’t got a chance to check her calendar if it is a bad day”.
The Catholic church in the Philippines only approves of natural family planning methods, which entail close observation of the woman’s temperature and menstrual cycles to determine when to have or avoid sex.
But, promoting this method in Catholic schools and from the pulpit is said ot have led to an aversion for contraceptives such as condoms, leading to many teenage pregnancies and illegitimate children. Abortion is a criminal offence in the Philippines.
Former president Fidel Ramos, a Protestant, argues that high population growth rate needs to be curbed if the country is to tackle poverty. “The population policy of this government is clearly flawed because of the undue subservience of President Gloria to Catholic bishops,” he said in an interview with IPS.
“Basically arguing that resorting to artificial means of family planning (as opposed to natural methods) is abortion is completely wrong,” he added. “We should respect all of them because what we’re trying to protect is the quality of life of the Filipino family and it has to be moderated in terms of numbers.’’
Ramos pointed out that the attendance rate in schools has dropped in the past four years from 90 percent to 82 percent because a growing population has resulted in lack of access to limited facilities. “Since you have a growing number of people to take care of, shouldn’t it be logical and reasonable to include that factor in our national planning?” he asked.
The growing Christian evangelical movement in the Philippines tends to be in consonance with Ramos. “While the Bible tells mankind to multiply, it has specific instructions for humanity to care and protect all of the creation,’’ the Board of the Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) said in a statement released on the weekend.
Pointing out that there are 5,800 babies born in the country daily and that, at this rate, the population of the Philippines would shoot up to 100 million within five years, the PCEC had no doubts that population growth is linked to increasing poverty. “One doesn’t have to be an economist to tally how much more food, water, shelter, medicine and other resources will be needed for their support,” it noted. “The present uncontrolled population growth, over these many years, has undeniably contributed to and accelerated the poor getting poorer, and has led to thousands of abortions, unnecessary maternal deaths, abandoned children, increase of street dwellers.”
The country’s population, with an annual growth rate of 2.34 percent, is projected to reach 90 million this year. In 2007, the Philippines’ human development index ranking fell seven places, to number 90.
“The problem of population growth is the problem of poverty,” argues Father Francis Lucas, president of the Catholic Media Network. “Don’t blame population growth for poverty. The problem is disparities in the INCOME LEVELS.”
The Catholic priest believes that what needs to be ‘’tackled and discussed’’ is disparities rather than population. “Why not address the issue of how many calories of food are wasted by the rich? How much energy is wasted by the rich world?”
“They (the rich) are becoming greedier and greedier and don’t want to change lifestyles. The debate therefore is more an issue of morality, disparity and inequity. The debate should focus on asset reform, how much is too much and not manipulating population,’’ the priest argued.
Annabel, a 35-year-old mother of five working as a janitor at a broadcasting institution in Manila, has her own ideas of sin and family planning. “I took the pill and later injectables after having the fifth child,’’ the Catholic told IPS.
“If I can’t take contraception I will give birth to more children,” added Annabel. “It will be a sin to give birth to more children and not be able to support them, as they grow up, and give them a good life.”