First published in Canvas: 7th June 2013
In the past decade, Christian countries across the world have passed marriage equality legislation for same-sex couples, leading many to contemplate the future of organised religion. In most European democracies, the coercive influence over social policy that the state once wielded has entered terminal decline. But this is not yet the case for countries in other parts of the world – in particular the Philippines. Home to more than 100 million people, many of whom live in grinding poverty, the Catholic Church still wields extraordinary influence over government policy. Yet even there, there are signs that its power is beginning to wane.
Unlike most Asian countries, the Philippines – a nation with a Catholic majority – has rejected many of the reforms that have occurred even in other Catholic nations. The Philippines is the only nation in the world that does not permit divorce, and has rejected contraception and family planning as a valid form of population control. Although condoms are available, they are either priced too highly for the majority of the public to afford, or outlawed by local ordinances. One such example is the prohibited sale of birth control pills and condoms in Manila – the country’s largest city – since 2000. Since that time, public health clinics in the city have promoted ‘natural family planning’ which calls for abstinence during peak days of female fertility, and avoidance of drugs or sterilisation to prevent pregnancy.
If the stated aim of this strategy is to stabilise population growth, rather than stymie the use of contraception, then it has been a complete failure. Maternity wards in the Philippines are struggling to cope with the birthrate, which is one of the highest in Asia – it is common for two or even three women to share a bed at one time. According to the 2011 Government Family Health Survey report, the maternal mortality rate rose 36% to 221 deaths per 100,000 live births between 2006 and 2010, and an increasing number of those giving birth were girls between 15 and 19. In spite of their Catholic faith, many families regret growing to such a size, and cite lack of education and access to contraception as the main reason for why they have had so many children. Younger Filipinos who are better educated have begun to turn against the anti-birth control rhetoric of the church, viewing it as a cultural throwback to an imperial age which is no longer representative of the nation. Despite its popularity among celebrities and the business sector, church attendance has crashed in the past 20 years. In 1991, 64% of the population went to church compared to around 37% in 2013 and up to 9% of Filipino Catholics are currently considering leaving the church altogether.
The changing demographics of the nation have encouraged liberal Filipino politicians to be more strident in their efforts to improve living conditions. On 30th December 2012 the Filipino Senate finally succeeded in passing the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, the first substantial family planning bill to be passed in the nation’s history. Fifteen years in the making, the bill legislates for government funded contraception for the poor, sex education for middle and high school students, mandatory medical care to women who have had abortions, and illegalises the local ordinances in place in Manila City and Ayala Alabang, and outlying district of Manila.
Subsequent to its passing, the nation expected the legislation to be enforced from March 2013. However, days before the deadline, the Filipino Supreme Court suspended passage of the law for 120 days pending consideration of several petitions filed against the bill – supporters and opponents of the legislation will be asked to debate them on June 18th. The petitions have been placed principally by Catholic organisations who are worried that the pill would promote promiscuity and would lead to an increase in abortion, which remains illegal. Principally, they argue that the legislation violates the right to life, which is enshrined in the constitution. This does not necessarily mean that the measure is likely to be ruled unconstitutional, however, as the Court has previously delayed laws that it has later validated as constitutional.
Temporary or not, the halt emboldened the Church to use the Senate elections in early May as a ‘referendum’ on the policy and President Aquino. A coalition of 41 groups dominated by Catholic conservatives stated that it would endorse Senate candidates that opposed the legislation. Known as the White Vote movement, the group was supported by two lists produced by the Diocese of Bacolod which revealed who supported and opposed the RH bill and are also concerned over divorce and same sex marriage bills currently under consideration. The list, labelled “Team Life” and “Team Death” were hung from the outer walls of San Sebastian Cathedral, and all six candidates labelled as Team life were backed by the White Vote. The tactic backfired; candidates sympathetic to the president won the majority of the seats and effectively returned control of the Senate to the President. Senators Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero and Alan Peter Cayetano, all of whom supported the RH bill when it was being debated, were re-elected.
President Aquino is an unlikely champion of reform. His mother Corazon Aquino, who rose to power in a church backed revolution, had removed a clause enshrining family planning from the 1973 constitution drawn up by dictator Ferdinand Marcos. However, he has confounded critics since his election in May 2010 by combating political corruption and tax evasion among the elite, and for keeping economic growth above 5%. His removal of Chief Justice Gloria Macapagal, whose administration was riddled with corruption, brought him personal acclaim, and kept his popularity rating above 60%, even after he stated his willingness to risk excommunication over his insistence of the passage of a contraception bill. Liberals hope that if Aquino can secure the passage of the Reproductive Health Bill, then a law liberalising divorce may follow.
At the same time, it is certain that the Church will resurrect its campaign against the bill with renewed vigour. On the 26th May, Bishop Gabriel Reyes, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) Episcopal Commission on Family and life chairman, stated that that there was a need to intensify the campaign against anti-family bills such as divorce, same sex marriage and euthanasia. Whatever happens in the next month, it is certain that it is a crucial time for a nation that stands on the edge of significant progress.