The Filipino front in the culture wars

An outsider who tuned into the debate that is raging in the Philippines over what’s politely known as reproductive health could be forgiven for thinking that contraception is banned this largely Catholic nation and that the legions of light are engaged in a fight against the forces of religious repression for the freedom to take a pill or use a condom.

This is so far from the truth it is laughable. Access to contraceptives is already unrestricted in the Philippines. The government family planning service, which has been in place since the 1970s, has an infrastructure of workers all the way down to the grassroots. The private sector is equally active; the International Planned Parenthood Federation supports two federations of NGOs providing various types of family planning services: Family Planning Organizations of the Philippines, and PNGOC (Philippine NGO Council), the latter with 97 member groups. Sex education is also an integral part of the high school curriculum.

So what is the purpose of House Bill 5043, which is entitled “An Act Providing for a National Policy on Reproductive Health, Responsible Parenthood and Population Development”? Raul del Mar, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, has described it as pushing an open door. If so, what makes it so objectionable to the church and those legislators and members of the public who are pushing from the other side?

The answer is, coercion. The contraceptive-driven fertility decline program of HB 5043 may be the most coercive ever designed outside China. It obliges the government to provide free contraceptive services and products; it establishes an “ideal” family size, setting the stage for a proposed two-child policy; it imposes a national sex education curriculum at fifth grade level. Couples would be denied a civil marriage license unless they present a “certificate of compliance” from a family planning office certifying that they have been adequately instructed in family planning and “responsible parenthood”.

If before, quota-driven programs have led to gross human rights violations, this time around this bill could easily penalize with fines and jail sentences workers who will be unable to meet their quota. Employers who refuse to provide reproductive health care services to their employees will likewise be subject to penalties. Worse, it curtails freedom of speech, since any person who dares to talk against the program will also be subject to jail sentence and fines.

This program turns the Philippines into a veritable police state with the government using police powers to interfere in the personal affairs of its citizens. It will surely drive a wedge between couples since a health worker must provide sterilization services even in the absence of spousal permission -- or incur a penalty; and likewise between parents and children, since the latter can have access to reproductive health services without parental consent. In a generation or two, the six years of value-free sex education the bill mandates for school children will surely create sexually active adolescents.

Railroading and foreign influence

Naturally this legislation, which has a history stretching back more than a decade, has been sold to legislators and the public as something demanded by international human rights codes and a long overdue step for the betterment of families and the nation. But the high-handed tactics of its promoters indicate its true character.

The debate which is raging both in and out of Congress was sparked when two House Committees — Health and Population, and Family Relations — denied church and pro-family groups a chance to submit their position papers during the committee hearings, in contravention of the Constitution. This railroading of the bill’s approval at the comittee level was meant to fast track the submission of the committee report needed so that the bill could be put on the calendar for plenary debate.

In response, church groups organized a big rally celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Catholic “charter” on human life, Humanae Vitae, and launched an educational campaign to encourage civil opposition to the bill.

In the House, Congressman del Mar revealed departures from the established procedure in the handling of HB 5043. There were actually four reproductive health bills referred to two House committees. A first hearing on three bills took place on April 29 this year. By the second hearing on May 21, however, the committee chairman announced they would now consider “the substitute bill” (replacing all four bills) and, in the blink of an eye, the committees approved it. Usually a technical working group is convened to painstakingly put together the substitute bill. The question is, where did the substitute bill come from?

Former Senator Francisco S. Tatad, an incisive commentator, sources HB 5043 to the Philippine Legislative Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) — an NGO with offices in the same building as the House of Representatives. Although purporting to be an NGO counting many Philippine lawmakers among its membership, PLCPD is essentially a foreign body. A popular columnist, Jose Sison, reports that PLCPD’s 2008 lobbying fund of two billion pesos comes from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, IPPF and UNFPA the latter two both well known for their global agenda to legalize abortion. PLCPD’s website shows the many programs it has implemented over the years in the name of alleviating poverty – sweet deals awarded to legislators who are PLCPD members? The world over is dotted with similar NGOs initiated by UNFPA to pursue its agenda to legalize abortion. Many who are in the know resent the role of PLCPD and are angry over this violation of their national sovereignty.

All over the Philippines local governments are passing their own versions of the Reproductive Health Bill: Quezon City, Aurora Province, Olongapo City, Sorsogon, Antipolo City... To no-one’s surprise, it appears that HB 5043 and these local ordinances are using one single template and in some parts are word for word the same. It leaves one without any doubt that the long arm of PLCPD reaches throughout the country.

Victory is not assured

Co-sponsored by 113 of the 238 members of the House of Representatives, the bill was only eight votes shy of making it past its second reading when urgent Budget hearings forced that debate to be postponed. No less than three billion pesos (US$62.2 million) has been appropriated for reproductive health programs in the government’s 2009 Budget.

However, victory is by no means guaranteed when Congress reconvenes on November 10. The 22 congressmen who have signalled their desire to intervene during the debate cut across partisan groupings; del Mar, the first of them, belongs to the same party as the bill’s principal author, Edsel Lagman. At last count the 238 congressmen appeared evenly spread between the pro, con and neutral positions, making the situation very fluid. The latest impeachment proceedings filed against President Arroyo will very likely cause further delay, and perhaps further dilution of support.

President Arroyo, by the way, has affirmed support for natural family planning methods. However, seven members of cabinet and heads of other government agencies have expressed their full support for this bill. When church leaders conferred with her on the bill she airily responded that the matter is now up to the debate in Congress. Last month she addressed the UN General Assembly meeting on the Millenium Development Goals, a UN program that considers lower population growth as an important development goal.

A culture war, in Asia

Article II, Section 12 of the 1986 Philippine Constitution states: “The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution. It shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception. The natural and primary right and duty of parents in the rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and the development of moral character shall receive the support of the Government.”

Under this article, and in spite of 80 per cent of the population being Catholic, a pluralism of family plannning practice has prevailed. Although the church continuously condemns artificial contraception and sterilization as evil, it has never coerced anyone into obeying these moral norms nor has it called for the closure of family planning clinics or the banning of modern contraceptives. In fact, everyone feels entitled to criticize the church for its alleged antedeluvian views on contraception. This freedom is also evident in the fact that around half of married women use some form of birth control, with 35 per cent using “modern methods” (the pill, IUD, condom, sterilisation...) and 14 per cent natural family planning and other “traditional” methods. 

Congressman del Mar concludes that the real agenda of the Reproductive Health Bill is to push the contraceptive program as a direct attack against a predominantly Catholic nation and, in particular, the Catholic Church’s absolute rejection of abortion. The church is well aware that in UN language the term “reproductive health” includes abortion and lays the ground for its legalization.

In spite of the fact that population growth is now down to 1.81 per cent and fertility is down to 2.8 children per woman, the educated middle class strongly supports the bill on the false premise that Philippine population growth needs to slow further in order to solve the poverty problem. These promises were made forty years ago to a host of countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines included. Today, even the much-touted economic miracle in many Asian countries is unable to hide the fact that poverty remains a huge problem.

House Bill 5043 also proclaims that it is championing the cause of women a claim that is discordant for many grassroots women who have been victimized by the bad side effects of modern contraceptives. Behind this lofty proclamation is actually the imposition of the feminist ideology that surfaced during the UN Population Conference in Cairo and later in the International Women’s Conference in Beijing a sexual “freedom” that places women on the same footing as men in sexual matters. However, recent history has shown us how this brand of “gender equality” has played a key role in the secularization of many societies in the West.

Can there be any doubt that there is a culture war waged against the church and that the Philippines is one of the battlefields?

Rosa Linda Valenzona is currently General Manager of the Ayala Multi-purpose Cooperative in Manila. She is a former lecturer in economics at the University of the Philippines and a former Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, Department of Social Welfare and Development. She is also a consultant to Pontifical Council on the Family.



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