Philippine contraceptive advocates pin hopes on Aquino

MANILA, November 9, 2010 (AFP) – In the four months since Benigno Aquino became president of the Philippines, the impoverished country’s population has grown by about 600,000 – the fastest rate of increase in Southeast Asia.

Amid the patter of many tiny new feet, calls from pro-birth control campaigners are growing louder as they urge a change in the government’s approach to contraception.

Tight controls have for years hampered efforts by health agencies to distribute artificial contraceptives in the devoutly Catholic country, even as its population has boomed to 94 million.

Campaigners are now pushing for Congress to finally pass a reproductive health bill which would oblige the government to fund mass contraception programs.

The bill, introduced in July, is the fifth attempt by family planning advocates since 1998 to change the Philippines’ legal framework on the issue.

They hope it will succeed this time amid a new political energy following elections in May that saw contraception advocate Aquino rise to power.

“I think (the bill) has a greater chance of being passed. Many co-authors of the bill have been re-elected and some of its more vociferous opponents lost in the election,” said lawmaker Edcel Lagman.

Until now, argues Lagman, there has simply not been the political leadership needed to guide the contentious bill through a deeply divided Congress.

The pro-contraception lobby – mostly women’s rights groups and non-governmental organisations – has garnered a colourful and influential cast of supporters in its latest effort to have it passed.

Filipino activist and blogger Carlos Celdran last month became a high-profile addition when he heckled churchmen in Manila Cathedral over their opposition to contraceptives – and was arrested.

But campaigners’ hopes rest mainly with 50-year-old bachelor president Aquino who, although a Catholic, has said repeatedly in recent months the poor should have access to contraceptives.

“Benigno Aquino is very popular and the Catholic Church doesn’t have much influence on him,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform think-tank.

“If the Church has a position not supported by the population it will be hard to maintain, and I think public opinion is supportive of reproductive health.”

Nevertheless, Aquino has sought to placate the Catholic Church, meeting behind closed doors with leading bishops to try to find common ground.

The Church, to which 80 percent of the population belong and which has long wielded strong political influence, has shown it is in no mood to compromise.

It has pledged its support for protests by hardline lay members against any moves to provide wide-scale access to contraceptives, while some bishops have threatened Aquino with excommunication.

“(The bill) is masquerading as a health bill but it is actually a handful of harm,” said Josephine Imbong, a prominent pro-Church lawyer and mother-of-eight, voicing the feelings of many against the proposed legislation.

“It suppresses fertility, which is not a disease, and it devalues spousal rights.”

Many pro-contraception advocates say popular opinion is on their side, pointing to a 2008 nationwide survey that showed 63 percent of respondents in favor of the government subsidizing contraception.

They also point to the dire health consequences of restricting access to contraceptives among the poor in a country where a third of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, according to the United Nations.

By comparison with many of its regional neighbors, the rate of HIV infection in the Philippines is low.

Nevertheless the deadly virus is spreading, with the latest World Health Organization data showing infections more than doubled from about 4,000 to 8,300 between 2003 and 2007 — although these figures are believed to be under-reported.

And although abortions are illegal, dangerous “back street” operations are common.

About 1,000 women die annually in the Philippines through abortion-related complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute health organization.

(By Sam Wild)

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