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on Population, Reproductive Health  and Ethics

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Agence France-Presse, April 4, 2005

Pope's Hard Line on Birth Control Is Demographic Time Bomb for Philippines


The uncompromising birth control policies promoted by Pope John Paul II were embraced wholeheartedly by the church in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, which has one of the highest birth rates in Asia and tens of millions living in poverty.

Condom use is almost non-existent and poor birth control has left the country sitting on a demographic timebomb which has pitted advocates of birth control against the highly influential church over its spiralling population.

With a birth rate of 2.4 percent annually the Philippines could see its population double from the current 84 million within the next 30 years according to the government's Commission on Population.

Struggling to meet its massive debt repayments and with just over 50 percent of the population living on less than two dollars a day the Philippines is already stretched to educate, feed and provide health services for the population it now has.

While population control did not figure in last year's presidential election campaign nor was it included in President Gloria Arroyo's 10 point reform programme, the controversial issue is now before the nation's Congress.

A private bill, the Responsible Parenthood and Population Act, proposes to restrict families to two children, introduce sex education and enable the distribution of contraceptives.

The legislation has so incensed the Church that it has threatened not to give Holy Communion to any government worker promoting the bill.

Monsignor Jesus Dosado of the Ozamiz diocese on the southern island of Mindanao was quoted recently saying that any government worker who promotes what he called "the bill's anti-life policies" are "not worthy to receive the body of Christ (Holy Communion) and will be refused".

"Those who privately support population control measures will not be denied Communion, but should in good conscience not present themselves."

Observers say there is no way such a bill will become law while the church wields its extensive influence over politicians and policy in the Philippines. Nor would president Gloria Arroyo, a devout catholic, dare take on the might of the church.

Rosy Alegria, spokeswoman for the Commission on Population, said: "Most catholic countries today leave the issue of birth control to the elected government. But here in the Philippines the church still has a very strong voice on the subject.

"That voice reflects the late pope's conservative view on the issue. How the church's stand on birth control changes with a new pope remains to be seen."

Commission executive director Tomas Osias said recently the country urgently needed a population policy to stop the worsening maternal and child deaths brought about by unplanned pregnancies in the country.

The United Nations Population Fund has estimated that more than 400,000 women put their lives at risk each year by having abortions, which are still illegal in the Philippines.

Osias said the Commission was supporting the bill, which has already passed the House Committee on Health although has not been officially endorsed by the government, because it encourages couples to plan their family size.

Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit said that while the bill's major concern is the two million Filipino couples in urban and rural slums, teenagers would also be targeted.

Dayrit said that in educating teenagers, this would expose them to the use of artificial contraceptives like condoms and pills.

"We will orient teenagers about the responsibility of not having children at an early age but we will not tell them that they are free to use condoms and contraceptives," said Dayrit.

A survey conducted by the polling group Social Weather Station last year found about 20 percent of Filipino women aged between 18-24 admitted taking contraceptive pills, while two percent used condoms.

The survey also showed 70 percent of Filipinos were not using any family planning methods.

Monsignor Hernando Coronel, secretary general and spokesman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said in an interview that the church would not support any form of artificial contraception.

Monsignor Oscar Cruz, archbishop of Ligayen-Dagupan in the northern province of Pangasinan and an outspoken critic of artificial birth control, said: "Contraceptives are a first step towards killing the unborn and are instruments that favour abortion."

The secretary of Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of Cebu said the Church perceived the current bill as being "anti-life" and against the Fifth Commandment (thou shall not kill) even if it truly seeks to prevent unwanted pregnancy.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines encourages families to have as many children as they can raise and educate well and approves only natural family-planning methods.

Whether that view would soften if the successor to John Paul II as pope softens the conservative stance on birth control remains to be seen.

<< Agence France-Presse -- 4/4/05 >>

see also:

John Paul's years of unfulfilled potential

John Paul II's Unswerving Orthodoxy Wasted Chance to Limit HIV Deaths

A Divider, Not a Uniter: the Legacy of Pope John Paul II

Pope's Hard Line on Birth Control Is Demographic Time Bomb for Philippines

No Praise for Pope from AIDS Campaigners

The Paradoxical Pope

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