x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dogma and demographics clash

The Catholic church in the Philippines mounts strong opposition to a government bill making contraception widely available.

Robert Sevilla, left, sits in his family's small shack in a Manila slum with some of his 10 children.
Robert Sevilla, left, sits in his family's small shack in a Manila slum with some of his 10 children.

MANILA // Wearing a condom is a sin, according to Father Melvin Castro. A spokesman for the Catholic church in the Philippines, he was explaining the church's opposition to a government bill that would make contraception widely available, along with sex education. The bill would see a heavy injection of state funds into family planning services in an attempt to curb the country's skyrocketing population, which is projected to hit 90 million next year. Advocates say the high birth rate is keeping the country mired in poverty, but they have run up against stiff resistance from the church, which has considerable influence in the Philippines where about 85 per cent of the population is Catholic. The bill is aimed at helping such couples as Amellia and Robert Sevilla. They live in a Manila slum, ironically named Paradise Village, in a small shack with their 10 children. "We sleep just like sardines inside the can," said Mr Sevilla, laughing as he grabbed a tin of the miniature fish from the shelf next to him. At the back of the makeshift home was a tiny kitchen. A large rat prowled through rubbish piled up outside the door. With no bathroom facilities, family members must use plastic bags instead of a toilet. The area regularly floods during the rainy season. Sickness is rampant in slums such as this and one of the Sevillas' daughters suffers from cysts that have infected her foot and disfigured the side of her face. Mr Sevilla helps unload fishing boats and his 18-year-old son works in a cafeteria, but the money they make is barely enough to feed the family. "Sometimes neighbours give us clothes. The neighbourhood is very helpful to each other," Mrs Sevilla said. "The only thing we cannot provide is education. That is why only four of them are going to school." Ms Sevilla said she and her husband, who are both strong Catholics, have more children than they can afford, but she added: "They are here now and we can't do anything about it. As parents we will provide for their needs." The Sevillas are among 45 per cent of Filipinos who survive on less than US$2 (Dh7.3) a day and the number of families like them is growing rapidly, warned Edcel Lagman, a congressman and primary author of the Reproductive Health Bill. "We will have to act fast," he said. "Otherwise we will be relegated to a situation where we could not afford to nourish, shelter, educate, employ an exploding population." The Philippines is already the 12th most populous country in the world and it ranks 102 on the UN's Human Development Index. Mr Lagman said reining in population growth was key to achieving a better ranking. The Catholic church disagrees. "It is not a demographic problem," Father Castro said. "It is an economic problem and therefore a solution to an economic problem should be an economic solution not a demographic one." Mr Castro said the government should put money into job creation in rural areas rather than funding family planning programmes that promote "artificial" contraception. "This is a very myopic view of the situation because both international and local studies show the indubitable nexus between population and poverty," Mr Lagman said. "The Bible says 'the truth shall set you free' but in the case of the hierarchy they have been playing misinformation against this bill." While the church disputes evidence linking population and poverty, its argument is, at its core, a moral one. "We are promoting natural means of birth control while they are not. For us, using artificial means will always be morally unacceptable," Father Castro said. But natural methods, such as refraining from sexual intercourse certain days every month, are notoriously unreliable, according to Dr Jeffrey Leonardo, who heads the Dr Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, one of the busiest maternal hospitals in Asia and the site of 80 to 100 births each day. "If the woman has an irregular menstrual period, the greater likelihood that pregnancy will still happen," Dr Leonardo said. "The thing is, if you limit it to natural family planning, I'm not too sure about the kind of discipline that is prevalent." Father Castro said couples should welcome pregnancies that occur regardless of natural methods. "We believe there is no unplanned and unwanted pregnancy," he said. "If a woman gets pregnant it is part of the plan of God." Statements like that put Mr Leonardo, like many Filipinos, in a moral quandary. "I don't want to contradict the church or go against its official stand," he said, but added: "Speaking in my personal capacity, I think it's a good idea to provide the populace the choice." Mr Lagman said his bill provides funding for educating people about all types of family planning, including natural means of birth control. "The church is wrong when it says there is compulsion here," he said. "We have to create an enabling environment for free and informed choice." His is not the first bill to address population growth through family planning - there have been about 20 others that failed to pass. Gloria Arroyo, the president, has signalled her opposition to the bill. But Mr Lagman said the effects of the population explosion are becoming so obvious that he has been able to garner widespread support from politicians, academics, civil society, religious groups - including Christians and Muslims - and even from some members of the Catholic clergy. "If both the House and Senate will pass this bill and the popular support is steadfast, then I think the president of this republic cannot reject or deny the strong political will of the congress and the strong support of the people," he said. Congress resumes next month. jferrie@thenational.ae