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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Editorial in the Los Angeles Times

Family planning and the Philippines

For too long in the Philippine Congress, the priorities of the Roman Catholic Church took precedence over what most Filipinos wanted — and needed. Finally, after 14 years of debate and delay, lawmakers passed a bill that will provide free or subsidized birth control to poor people as well as require sex education in schools and mandate training in family planning for community health workers.

Even though 80% of the nation's population is Catholic, birth control has long been available to those who want it — as long as they could pay. Contraception has been out of reach for most of the poor, though. In a series of articles this year on population growth, Times staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss reported that half of the pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended and that impoverished parents struggle to stave off hunger in their large families. Abortion is illegal, though close to half a million abortions are believed to take place in the country each year.

The Philippines has one of the fastest-growing populations in Asia, and is also one of the most densely populated countries. It cannot produce enoughfoodto feed its 96 million people.

But the church hierarchy in the Philippines has up to now been successful at both the national and local levels, persuading many city officials not to allow contraceptives at community health clinics for the poor. One church leader has suggested that President Benigno Aquino III, who has pledged to sign the bill, could be excommunicated for his support. And shortly before the vote in Congress, a church official said that Aquino's signature would be the moral equivalent of the recent killing of 20 elementary schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., but multiplied many times because of all the children who would not be born if contraception were widely affordable to the poor.

Church leaders are, of course, entitled to their viewpoint, but it is the job of lawmakers to respond to the population's needs rather than to church doctrine. And birth control is one issue on which most of the nation differs with Roman Catholic teaching. More than 70% of Filipinos support the Reproductive Health Bill.

Church officials haven't given up; they are vowing to fight the bill in the Philippines Supreme Court and sermonize against it to their flocks. But the bill should go forward. The church has every right to try to persuade women to follow its dictates, but women must ultimately have the right to choose.

I'm glad the bill has passed. I've been following this story for a while, having read a number of stories like this one - In Philippines, a 14-year fight for birth control .....

Growing up, Cecilia Lopez hoped to escape poverty by finishing school and becoming a teacher. But now 52 years old and having never finished school, she wishes she had learned a few things .... In Lopez's small home in Tondo, a poor neighborhood in Manila, she and her family sleep, cook and eat inside one room. Seventeen people share a cramped 12-square meter room, one person next to another. Although limited in space, the room has a sense of order. An array of slippers in different sizes sits next to the front door. The family has one mattress and the rest sleep on the floor, covered with cardboard, mats and blankets. Two pieces of plywood serve as a bed and a desk for one of her children .....

Lopez first became pregnant at 17. Since then, she can't recall when she did not struggle to provide basic needs for their children. Her husband, a carpenter does not have steady work.

"If we earn money, they eat," she said, referring to her children. "If we don't, they have nothing to eat all day. Most days they just bear with it. Even when they go to school without food."

"I find it so hard when they go to school without food, without money. When they're hungry. I just want to cry most times."

With no one else to care for her growing family, Lopez stayed home to watch her children. Her adult children struggle to find work, because they didn't graduate from high school.

"The older ones had to stop going to school so the younger ones could start", Lopez said.

But her children appear to be entangled in a familiar cycle. Just like Lopez, her daughter became pregnant at 17. Her son became a father when he was 18, and her 17-year-old son is expecting a child soon. Lopez has three grandchildren.

The health bill, Lopez said, would give her youngest the means to "understand what happens with their bodies."

Young people in the Philippines lack health services and education, said Daniels from the U.N. Population Fund. This has caused a problem of skyrocketing teen pregnancy rates in the Philippines, which are the second highest in Southeast Asia.

"We are also failing the young people in the Philippines," she said. "Ideally it's a time when young people are focused on education and skills- the things they need to live productive lives. Instead, we have a situation where children are having children."

A pack of condoms cost about 50 pesos and upwards, and birth control pills start at 100 pesos. When Lopez's husband can find work, he earns about 350 pesos a day. Condoms are sold in convenience stores and groceries, and pills are available, but they're harder to find in remote areas. The health bill would make various forms of birth control free and available to the country's poor.

It would help quell the dramatic rise in maternal mortality rates, which has increased from 11 women dying per day to 15, from 2006 to 2010, said Daniels. It would also help address the fact that the Philippines is one of seven countries in the world where HIV rates are increasing, according to a U.N. report.

Proponents of the Reproductive Health bill say it is about human rights, health and sustainable human development, not religion and sex ....


Blogger PrickliestPear said...

What a disturbing situation. You'd think bishops in a place like that, of all places, would see that the magisterium's teaching against contraception is not merely incorrect, but gravely immoral. Of course, men with the eyes to see that aren't made into bishops...

5:11 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi PrickliestPear,

Yes, especially when you consider how close the church came to changing the stance on contraception at V2. But true - open-minded bishops are pretty thin on the ground.

7:33 PM  

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