In a legislative battle that has stretched on for nearly 15 years, the Philippines legislature has once again failed to move on a reproductive health bill that would ensure universal access to contraceptives and sexuality education in schools. Public support for the bill is solid, with nearly 70 percent of the predominantly Catholic population in favor of the measure. But that hasn't stopped the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) from throwing its full weight against it, even going so far as to threaten lawmakers who support the bill with a Church-sponsored opposition campaign against them in their 2013 elections.
Given the bill's measures to increase access to modern contraception, this harsh backlash from the country's Catholic hierarchy comes as no surprise. What does make this particular battle interesting is the messaging employed by one Catholic Bishop in his attempt to sway public opinion -- and how completely disconnected it is from the realities the people of the Philippines face each day.
Like most of the developing world, the Philippines is an increasingly youthful country, with children and adolescents making up about 35 percent of the total population. Perhaps that is why in his public admonition of the reproductive health bill Archbishop Socrates Villegas chose specifically to appeal to the "beloved youth" of the Philippines.
He begins by comparing the current heated political debates over the reproductive health bill to quarreling between parents, but assures them that the Church's stance against contraception and the battle it is currently waging in the Philippines are done out of love for and in defense of young people's souls. "Contraception is corruption," he states, a phrase he goes on to repeat three times.
What is so corrupting about contraception? According to the Bishop, using contraceptives teaches us "babies are nuisances" and "children are annoying" instead of gifts. It also leads to cancer, abortion, a country's total economic demise and killing our grandparents. (Just look at Europe, he says.) Poverty, he argues, is not caused by high fertility, but by corruption, specifically corrupt government officials. He challenges the argument that slowed population growth will lessen the strain on the country's resources, education system and healthcare not by proposing a logical counterargument, but instead by endearing young people, referring to them as "God's gift to us." He closes with this warning, "Fight contraception or we perish as a godly nation. This battle is for you and I fight for love of you."
Bishop Villegas claims that his fight against contraception is one out of love for young people. He is fearful for their future, he says. But how can one claim to be acting out of love for young people without thoroughly addressing the concerns and bleak circumstances of their futures?
The Philippines is a nation steeped in poverty. Nearly half of Filipinos live on less than $2 a day -- and that population continues to grow. While the overall fertility rate has fallen in recent decades, the Philippines continues to have one of the highest rates amongst its Asian neighbors, resulting in an annul population growth of 1.8 percent. The disparities in fertility rates among Filipino women are directly related to poverty and lack of education. Women from the wealthiest, most educated sector of the country on average have two children while those in the poorest, least educated have five or more. Larger families are typically poorer than smaller families and have fewer resources to invest in their children's education. An uneducated girl is more likely to give birth to more children, and thus the cycle continues.
The main cause of this disparity in fertility is lack of access to contraception for the country's poorest women. Only a third of all married women of childbearing age use modern contraceptives. More than a fifth of married women say that they want to delay or prevent pregnancy but aren't currently using a reliable family planning method. Among the country's poorest women, 41 percent say that they want to prevent pregnancy but aren't using any form of birth control. This unmet need for family planning leads to high rates of unintended pregnancies, which are not only economically burdensome but increasingly dangerous and even life-threatening. Maternal mortality rates actually rose by 36 percent between 2009 and 2011, and without increased access to health services like family planning, more and more Filipino women will lose their lives giving birth.
There are many reasons a woman might not use contraceptives despite wanting to avoid a pregnancy. She might not have medically accurate information about various methods or access to a clinic that provides family planning. She might experience familial pressure to have more children. Addressing these and other barriers will require a concerted effort from the government, medical professionals, NGOs and civil society, but passage of this reproductive health bill is a critical first step in addressing one of the fundamental barriers for many Filipinos: cost. If all women, regardless of economic status, are empowered to make decisions about if, when and how many children they have, the positive ripple effects will be experienced by generation after generation.
If the Catholic Church prevails in its fight against this bill, we can expect poverty to increase, more deaths from maternal complications, and more children dying before their fifth birthday. Bishop Villegas and his counterparts are not acting out of love for young people. They are, in fact, acting immorally by insisting that young people leave their reproductive destinies -- and their children's futures -- to chance.