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Wednesday, Mar 14, 2012, 10:57 am

Catholics and the Culture War Abroad

By Theo Anderson

Filipino Roman Catholics observe Ash Wednesday in Manila on February 22.
(Photo by Ted Aljibe/Getty Images)

Access to contraception has recently emerged as an issue in American politics, but in the Philippines, a culture war over contraception has been raging for more than a decade. The primary opponent of reproductive rights in this battle, as in the U.S., is the Catholic Church.

Though contraception is legal in the Philippines, only half of all women of reproductive age use it, according to government surveys. The low percentage is the result of poverty—just a third of the population can afford private insurance—and the fact that public health services are controlled by local authorities, which are heavily influenced by the Catholic hierarchy. As a result, they often refuse to offer contraceptives.

The consequences are dire. About half of all pregnancies are unintended in the Philippines, and abortion is illegal, leading to an epidemic of unsafe abortions and abortion attempts. And those children who are born in the Philippines today enter a society that is scarred by competition for increasingly scarce resources. The current population of about 100 million is expected to double over the course of the next seventy years, and the Philippines is already over-fishing its reefs and importing more rice than any country in the world.

In other words, the dilemma of the Philippines is the global dilemma in microcosm. The options are to either increase food production, pushing overtaxed ecosystems to the breaking point, or reduce the rate of population growth.

The latter is the goal of the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act, currently before the Filipino Congress, which would make contraceptives available at little or no cost through public-health centers. It would also mandate sex education in the nation’s public and private schools.

Versions of the Act have been debated since 1998. Though it made some progress in the legislature last year, it is currently stalled and its fate is unclear. What’s certain is that it divides religious leaders, politicians and the general population, and it has provoked widespread rallies and publicity campaigns, pro and con.  

Leaders of the Catholic Church have been the most vocal opponents. They’re also the most influential, since an estimate 80 to 90 percent of Filipinos are Catholic. The boxer Manny Pacquiao, who recently became a member of the nation’s parliament and is perhaps the world’s most famous Filipino, summed up the Church’s logic after meeting with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference last year: “God said go forth and multiply,”  Pacquiao declared. “He did not say go and have just one or two children.”

Filipino bishops have threatened to excommunicate the nation’s president, Benigno Aquino, for lending his support to the bill. And for now, the pressure applied to politicians by Catholic leaders, along with opposition to the Act mustered by devout Catholics, have been enough to stall the legislation.

But there are indications that the Catholic leadership already has lost the broader war. According to a 2008 poll, about 70 percent of Filipinos support the Act and believe that the government should subsidize contraceptive services.

The moral seems to be that, even with the social and cultural capital of a powerful institution fully invested in dogma, truth and pragmatism will ultimately prevail. That’s the good news. The bad news is all the damage done in the meantime.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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