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Philippines defies church to push family planning

Philippine president Benigno Aquino is squaring off against his country's powerful Roman Catholic church in a bid to give people free access to the means to limit the size of their families.

Some of the 14 Cabiya-an siblings sleep side by side in a cramped one-bedroom shanty in a Manila slum. The household's monthly income is about Dh660.
Some of the 14 Cabiya-an siblings sleep side by side in a cramped one-bedroom shanty in a Manila slum. The household's monthly income is about Dh660.

MANILA // Philippine president Benigno Aquino is squaring off against his country's powerful Roman Catholic church in a bid to give people free access to the means to limit the size of their families.

The predominately Roman Catholic country has one of Asia's fastest-growing populations together with significant levels of chronic poverty. While neighbours have accelerated towards prosperity, the Philippines has lagged.

Economists say high population growth is a primary factor for that, but the church disagrees. It says population growth is not a cause of poverty and that people need jobs, not contraception.

Mr Aquino, a Roman Catholic like 80 per cent of the population, has thrown his support behind a reproductive health bill that will, if passed by the two houses of Congress, guarantee access to free birth control and promote sex education.

That's something that Liza Cabiya-an might have benefited from, if she'd had the opportunity.

Ms Cabiya-an, 39, has 14 children. The oldest is 22, the youngest just 11 months. Their home is a hut in a Manila slum.

"It's tough when you have so many children," said Cabiya-an, a shy smile revealing poor teeth. "I have to count them before I go to sleep to make sure no one's missing."

At one time Ms Cabiya-an had access to contraception but Manila mayor Jose Atienza, a devout Roman Catholic, swept contraceptives from the shelves of city-run clinics in 2000.

After that, Ms Cabiya-an's efforts to limit the size of her family were patchy, restricted by her meagre resources. She went on and off the birth control pill and resorted to an illegal abortion more than once.

With income of about 7,600 pesos (Dh661) a month from doing laundry and her husband's pay as a labourer, Ms Cabiya-an has only been able to send five of her children to school. The others would appear doomed to join the quarter of the country's 95 million people stuck below the poverty line.

Contraceptives are generally available in the Philippines although they are not used as much as elsewhere.

In the Philippines, 45 to 50 per cent of women of reproductive age, or their partners, are using a contraceptive method at any given time. Indonesia's rate is 56 per cent and Thailand's 80 per cent.

Population growth mirrors that. The Philippines population is increasing by 1.9 per cent a year, while Indonesia's is 1.2 per cent and Thailand's is 0.9 per cent. China's population is growing at an annual rate of 0.6 per cent.

"If you increase access to contraceptives for women ... you will have births averted," said Josefina Natividad, director of the University of the Philippines' Population Institute.

Though available in most places, the cost of contraceptives is prohibitive for many people. But that should change if the reproductive health bill is passed.

Mr Aquino's government has promised what it calls inclusive growth and it sees slowing population growth as key to that.

"The president has already, at the risk of alienating the church, declared that the bill is a priority," budget secretary Florencio Abad said. "That message is very clear."

But it's a message the church doesn't like.

It says artificial contraception is immoral, and the bill will pave the way to legalising abortion. The bill does not legalise abortion though it seeks to improve care for women suffering from complications after an illegal abortion.

The church says people should use natural family planning.

It says poverty is a cause, not effect, of a high birth rate. Children are being born into homes without enough food to eat because of the government's failure to end corruption and provide jobs, the bishops say.

"It's our firm belief that contraceptives will never be the answer," said Father Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines' Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.

"They are poor not because they have no access to contraceptives but because they have no work. Give them work and it will be the most effective birth spacing means for them."

Economists say the church's persistent opposition has been the most important factor influencing population policy.

"The state ... has been immobilised from effectively addressing the issue by the Catholic hierarchy's hardline position," a group of 30 economists from the University of the Philippines said in a recent paper.

But despite the arguments of the church and political opponents who decry using state funds to finance contraception, a poll last year showed about 70 per cent of people support the bill. Its backers want it passed during the term of this congress, which ends in June.

Economists say if the Philippines is ever to take advantage of a "demographic dividend", when a large, young workforce is generating the savings and investment to give the economy a sustained boost, it will have to bring down the fertility rate.

Mr Aquino might seem an unlikely champion of free contraception. His late mother, Corazon Aquino, rose to power at the head of a people power revolution, fostered by the church, that swept away old dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Ms Marcos had made reining in population growth a priority beginning in the 1960s and enshrined family planning in a 1973 constitution. But Corazon Aquino, mindful of the church's help in the democracy movement, scrapped that clause when the charter was rewritten in 1987.