Every hour of this year will see 206 babies born in the Philippines. This will swell the population by 1,812,495; bringing the total population of the 13th most populated country on Earth to 107,190,081 by 31 December. That’s a large increase and represents an annual growth rate of 1.69% – against a world average of 1.12%.
This is likely to kick off another firestorm in the age-old debate on population control in the Philippines – and more particularly, on what happened to the universal access to contraceptives promised back in 2012 and promised every year since. For behind those numbers are even starker facts – like how many of the 4,953 babies born today and tomorrow and every other day this year will have access to clean water, adequate sanitation. How many of those tiny mouths will be left hungry; left unfed?
And worse. How many of those children will die from water-borne diseases? How many will be sold or trafficked into the Philippines’ burgeoning child-sex industry? Meanwhile, how many more will be aborted by those who can’t care for the children they already have?
The Philippine population story isn’t simply about the numbers; it’s about the human misery that lies beneath them. This is a country, after all, where 21.6% of households are living below the poverty line – the threshold at which a family can meet its basic food and non-food needs. Admittedly that’s an improvement from two years ago, but there are still around 12 million Filipinos who lack the means to feed themselves each day.
We’re not talking about the wealth-gap here. That’s another issue entirely. This is about how families with eight and nine and more children have to scavenge and do whatever they can to survive on a daily basis. These are desperate lives and, by the end of this year, there’s going to be many more of them. The fact is that poor households bear more children than richer ones – an average of 5.2 per mother compared to 1.9. That’s the gap we’re talking about here. The people who simply just can’t afford to have any more kids.
The country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, is under no illusions about the need to bring down the population-growth numbers. He’s in favour of a three-child policy, and is committed to promoting birth control as part of his overall drive to reduce poverty and boost employment. But this is an enduring problem in the Philippines and it’s certainly not helped by entrenched opposition to achieving it.
In 2012, the government of then president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino passed the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (RH Act) – a landmark piece of legislation and a remarkable achievement, given the massive opposition mounted against it by the Philippine Roman Catholic Church. For that, Aquino personally faced the threat of excommunication from the Church; and his steadfastness in getting this law onto the statute books should never be underestimated.
The Church’s position is quite clear. It opposes all measures to curb population growth – upholding its doctrine that the sexual act is exclusively for the purpose of procreation and that it should take place only in the context of marriage. The only form of birth control the Church condones is by natural family planning – abstinence and intercourse performed during the woman’s non-fertile cycle.
Unfortunately, the RH Act remains little more than a statute in name only. Its implementation has been baulked ever since its enactment. The gifts of “guaranteed” universal access to contraceptives, fertility control and sex education never materialised. Neither did the ability of parents to plan their families.
The Church, highly organised through its 16 ecclesiastical provinces, archdiocese and dioceses which stretch from Nueva Segovia in the north to Davao in the south, has never let up on its opposition to this Act. And, effectively, it’s kept the Act’s provisions mothballed for the past five years.
For the first two years, it spent its time languishing in the Supreme Court, the subject of a slew of challenges which, among other things, claimed that contraceptives were “abortifacients”. On 3 April 2014, the Court lifted its anti-orders on the legislation after declaring that the law was not unconstitutional” – and also after it had struck or amended eight of the Act’s provisions.
But it didn’t end there. In June 2015, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) which halted the distribution of contraceptive implants and prohibited the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from “granting any and all pending applications for registration and/or recertification for reproductive products and supplies, including contraceptive drugs and devices”.
A petition to remove the TRO was denied by the Supreme Court in 2016 and again last year to allow time for parties opposed to the distribution of contraceptives to be heard. The Department of Health (DOH) and the FDA were also directed to prove that the contraceptives were “non-abortifacient”. That process is still going on.
Meanwhile, as women across the Philippines are denied access to contraceptive implants, according to Health Secretary, Dr Paulyn Ubial, there are 400,000 such devices gathering dust in DOH store rooms. And those will all expire some time this year.
Family planning in the Philippines has had a long and chequered history. Former president Ferdinand Marcos, like Duterte, believed that three children is the optimal number for a family to support. In March 1982, he mounted his “Stop at Three” policy and deployed 50,000 population workers to distribute contraceptives across 70 Philippine provinces with funding provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
In 1970, Marcos established the Commission on Population, to work with international agencies such as the World Bank, the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, USAID and the Asian Development Bank. A year later he introduced the Population Act to meet “the grave social and economic challenge of a high rate of population growth”. That Act aimed to make family planning part of a broader educational programme; provide couples with a “safe and effective means” to ‘space or limit family size”, as well as reduce mortality and morbidity rates.
When Corazon Aquino took over the presidency, she sent things in a completely opposite direction. Being pro-Church where birth control was concerned, she gave couples the right to have as many children as they liked. Marcos’s policies were slammed as being “coercive” and emphasis switched to improving maternal and child health.
Her successor, Fidel Ramos, returned the Philippines to a policy of population management. Family-planning funding quintupled; the number of family-planning workers which had dwindled to 200 under Corazon Aquino was boosted to 8,000, and artificial methods of contraception were promoted once more.
The Church, led by the all-powerful Metropolitan Archbishop of Manila and de facto Primate of he Philippines, the late Jaime Lachica Cardinal Sin – the man who’d put the weight of the Church behind Aquino’s assumption to the presidency – denounced Ramos. Sin declared that the distribution of contraceptives in the Philippines was “intrinsically evil”, while Ramos stated that his administration’s birth-control policies were “not in the hands of the devil” but were designed to help families in despair.
Next came Joseph Estrada and then Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, neither of whom wanted to suffer the ire of the Church over this issue. Their population-control policies – certainly as far as the distribution of contraceptives was concerned – were muted and mixed.
Arroyo’s Responsible Parenthood and Family Planning Program involved the promotion of natural family planning methods – i.e., those the Church subscribed to and approved of – including “birth-spacing” (births three years apart), while allowing local government units to promote artificial forms of contraception in line with the terms of their autonomous status. In other words, there was no comprehensive national programme set in place.
Duterte, meanwhile, seeks to build on his immediate predecessor’s achievement and bring the entire issue of population control and poverty reduction into a cohesive policy that will bear results. And, family planning – like everywhere else in the world – is seen as an essential element in attaining that goal.
Here are the population increases over past presidencies. Marcos (1965-1986) from 30.9 million to 55.8 million; C. Aquino (1986-1992) from 55.8 million to 65.08 million; Ramos (1992-1998) from 65.08 million to 74.89 million; Estrada (1998-2001) 74.89 million to 79.67 million; Arroyo (2001-2010) from 79.67 million to 93.73 million; B. Aquino (2010-2016) from 93.27 million to 103.32 million; Duterte (2016 to now) from 103.32 million to 105.73 million.
What those numbers show is that during times when there were attempts to actively introduce family-planning measures, population numbers were better controlled. For example, under 22 years of Marcos the population increased at an average annual rate of 1.13 million; under two and a half years of Estrada it went up by an average 1.91 million.
But, as we said earlier, this is about far more than the numbers. This is about allowing parents to determine the size of their own families; allowing them to bring only those children into the world whom they can properly provide for.
It’s ultimately about ridding the country of that wretched tableau of mothers at midnight begging in the streets with a grimey, malnourished infant in her arms. Those born forlorn and left to survive in a hopeless world of hunger and hostility.
There’s nothing righteous in allowing children to be sexually exploited by vile perverts who buy off their innocence with dirty money for a few more meals in some desperate ghetto in the dark corner of a city. Nothing righteous about depriving those children and their parents of a wholesome life and instead consigning them to a life sentence of poverty, destitution, hardship and exploitation.
Let this year see efforts galvanised to reduce poverty across the board and put full implementation of the RH Act front and centre of that effort. Let 2018 truly be the year of the child.