“BLESSED is the nation,” the new batch of Philippine peso bills proclaims alongside cartoon presidents and parrots, “whose God is the Lord.”
Possibly a rebuke of an increasingly secular and impoverished country or an acknowledgement of the 85 percent of Filipinos who are nominally Catholic. Or, as the secular group Filipino Freethinkers claims, an assault on the Constitution and the separation of Church and State.
On their website, the Freethinkers say putting a psalm on the peso notes disrespects the country’s religious diversity and “forces even non-Christians to participate in the distribution of explicitly Judeo-Christian material.”
This, despite the Bill of Rights saying “no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The government cannot favor one religion over another, or a religion over no religion. It cannot spend public funds to support one religion, or substitute the views of that religion for public policy. As Fr. Joaquin Bernas SJ says in his commentary on the 1987 Constitution, government should avoid “excessive entanglement” with any religion.
That entanglement is at it most excessive in the debates on the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, which the Church has opposed for seeking to distribute contraceptives and give women access to reproductive health resources.
The Church views condoms and other methods of artificial contraception sinful—explicitly non-Judeo-Christian material, if you will—and has mobilized its faithful to keep it from being passed.
By passing the RH bill, Philippine Congress might as well start throwing our new-born sons into the Pasig River. That, at least, is how Bishop Nereo Odchimar, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), sees it.
In a pastoral letter in July 2010, Odchimar recalled a dark episode in Church history when, in an effort at population control, midwives were ordered to strangle babies as they were born. When this wasn’t considered effective enough, it became national policy to drown baby boys. Until, of course, Moses came and led his people out of Egypt.
Although based on a book without footnotes, the CBCP’s stand on the reproductive health debates is clear: contraception kills babies. The RH bill’s “main purpose is to make barren what is by nature fruitful and generative,” Odchimar says.
“With the approval of the RH bill , a woman’s womb can be a ferocious threat to those who are yet to be born,” he warns Catholics in his Christmas message.
And the Church has pulled all the stops to keep it from being passed. It has subtly hinted at excommunicating President Benigno Aquino III for considering artificial contraception in government programs, inserted anti-RH messages in sermons, and even commissioned a comic book to teach people that supporters of the RH bill are, essentially, baby killers.
But opposing the bill doesn’t put you on the side of the angels either, pro-RH advocates say.
Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, author of one of the RH bills, says the lack of a reproductive health policy needlessly dooms children to a life of poverty. Those that manage to be born, at any rate.
Lagman, in the debates on the RH bill in the 14th Congress, says “having more children whom parents can ill-afford to feed, educate, medicate, guide and love makes them irresponsible regardless of their religion .”
Supporters of the bill also point out that reproductive health also covers child mortality, maternal health, and the eradication of HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
Alexander Padilla, former health undersecretary, says the Philippines needs to adopt the RH bill to reach the Millennium Development Goals, a set of indicators adopted by the United Nations.
He says the lack of an RH policy has kept the average maternal mortality rate in the Philippines at 170 deaths per 100,000 births. The MDG target is 52 deaths per 100,000 births by 2015, a figure that Padilla says is still too high.
The meat of the RH debates, though, is still population, or too much of it. With a 33 percent of a projected population of 94 million living in poverty, advocates of the bill say the Philippines cannot afford more children.
One of the challenges hurled at the Church for its opposition of the RH bill was to feed, clothe, and shelter unplanned children—around 400,000 a year according to Reproductive Health, Rights, and Ethics Center for Studies and Training (ReproCen).
But it is on the population issue that the Church is most sober, allusions to slavery under Egypt aside.
Odchimar says poverty is too complex an issue to attribute to overpopulation. He points at flawed development policies, corruption, unequal distribution of wealth, and the poor delivery of social services that also contribute to poverty .
“Overwhelming attention to population control is a convenient way to ignore greater causes of poverty,” he says, hinting at international campaigns that advocate population control at the expense of the right to life.
Pope Benedict XVI argues “extermination of millions of unborn children in the name of the fight against poverty acutally constitutes the destruction of the poorest of all human beings.”
If anything, statements that pro-RH bill advocates decry as dogmatic, antiquated, and irrational come from people outside the Church.
Former senator and pro-life advocate Francicso Tatad’s statement that the RH bill is “an attempt to expand the power of the State into family life” makes sense from a republican perspective.
Not so Eric Manalang’s fantastic claim that there is no need for an RH bill because natural family planning—the only kind approved by the Church—has a success rate of 99.9 percent. This was countered by Benjamin De Leon, president of the pro-RH bill Forum for Family Planning and Development, who said the figure is closer to an equally fantastic 0.01 percent.
Manalang, president of Pro-Life Philippines Foundation, opposes the very idea of an RH bill, adding he does not want the Philippines pressured to reach the Millennium Development Goals.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto, who cut the health department’s funding for contraceptives in the 2011 national budget, sees a hidden agenda behind the RH campaign directed by USAid, the United Nations Population Fund, or by manufacturers of condoms and oral contraceptives.
Perhaps most rage-inducing is former Paranaque Representative Eduardo Zialcita’s rationale for opposing contraception. In a 2006 documentary by BBC, he says the bigger the family, the better.
“Filipinos are one of the largest sources of manpower. We’re actually helping countries with very low birth rates in their search for workers. Without us, I don’t think their economy is going to move,” he says, giving a patina of nobility to what is essentially a labor-export policy.
But even so, supporters of the RH bill may be throwing rocks at the wrong target. Charges of being modern-day Padre Damasos aside, a 2009 Reprocen report says the Church is no longer a factor in the sexual lives of the Filipino youth.
In a survey of poor communities in Metro Manila, only 2 percent of around 300 respondents said they did not use contraceptives because the Church forbade it.
This was less than the number of respondents who didn’t use condoms because they made sex less pleasurable. Most of those surveyed—32 percent—said they didn’t use contraceptives because they didn’t know how. One respondent said “quickie sex” would keep him from fathering a child, while another said he did not use contraception because he did not want to waste his sperm.
Reprocen says their findings—and a PulseAsia survey released in December that 70 percent of Filipinos support the RH bill—should convince legislators who secretly support the bill to declare their stand.
“Given that religion does not hold sway in making decisions on family planning, then legislators who advance reproductive rights should be convinced that doing so would not jeopardize their ‘winnability,’” the report says.
Critics of the Church decry its meddling in state affairs but it sees itself as the moral guardian of its flock of around millions. Urging its faithful against a measure to “control fertility as if it were a disease,” is its right and its job. Supporters of the bill, as constituents of their members of Congress, can exert as much pressure for its passage.
The burden of upholding the separation of Church and State is on the State, and on the politicians who represent it. If the Church meddles in Philippine politics, it is because they are allowed to by politician who need their numbers.
There was no outcry, for example, against the Church being at Edsa in 1986 and in 2001. There were no complaints either when church groups endorsed candidates in May 2010.
At the height of the frenzy over excommunicating the President for considering support for contraception, Senator Franklin Drilon had this to say: “How I wish Bishop Odchimar was similarly vocal when the nation was confronted by abuses and excesses of the Arroyo administration.”
What is lacking is for lawmakers to stop playing safe—Senator Pia Cayetano, chair of the Senate health committee, says the RH bill has secret supporters among her colleagues—and declare their position for or against it. It serves neither side for the bill to lie abandoned in the archives of Congress like the unplanned babies at the heart of the debate.
A version of this piece was published in the March/April 2011 issue of Monday Magazine. I had a lot of help from Valerie Buenaventura. It is more her article than mine. I only did the words.