News Analysis Religion

Priests vs parenting in Act of conflict

Philippines Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act

It’s not just the Philippines’ drug lords and the ‘Manila elite’ whose behaviour will be challenged by the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte; there’s one group bigger and more powerful than either of these and that one is likely to come into the firing line very soon.

This is the Philippines Roman Catholic Church, a religeopolitical force that has held sway over governments and their policies in this country for the best part of 450 years. Church and state may be divorced from each other in the Constitution, in the world of Philippine politics, however, their marriage vows are still in tact.

As the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines made clear in its Catechism on the Church and Politics, 11 May 1998: “The relationship of the Church and State has been described by the Philippine Bishops as one of ‘critical collaboration’ or ‘critical solidarity’”.

Certainly, though, the Church’s influence has become more diluted over the past few years – that can be traced to two events: the death in 2005 of Church strongman, Jaime Lachica, Cardinal Sin, the de facto Primate of the Philippines; and the 2012 signing into law of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act which, among other provisions, guaranteed universal access to contraceptives, fertility control and sex education. Giving parents the ability to plan their families, it has been bitterly opposed by the priesthood.

Despite that, the Church remains a significant player at the political court, while outside those cloisters it maintains much of its authority over a constituency of tens of millions of Catholic parishioners. They are spread right across the archipelago’s 16 ecclesiastical provinces, archdiocese and dioceses which stretch from Nueva Segovia in the north to Davao in the south. Sin’s loud rhetoric and consummate political manoeuvering might have gone, but his adherents remain determined to keep Catholic doctrine integral to government policy. And nowhere more so than in the fight to halt any march of birth control. It is a fundamental tenet of Church doctrine that artificial contraception agents are abortifacients, and as such are immoral.

And so, although the RH Act vote in Congress went against the Church’s teaching and its wishes – despite suggestions that congressmen voting for it could be subject to excommunication – the bishops and the rest of the priesthood have managed over the past four years to place the legislation in a state of paralysis. Through well-orchestrated petitions and protests, and support from lawmakers, the RH Act spent the first two years of its life in the Supreme Court, only finally being deemed constitutional (with some adjustments) in April 2014. The Churches abortifacient argument was the main issue.

Since then, little has happened to implement it – shortage of government funds being the latest episode in this sage – and the Church’s hand is believed to be in this delay also. The bishops’ reach extends beyond the Senate and House assemblies; it goes deep into the tangled undergrowth of government agencies charged with implementing and enforcing legislation. In this case, the stalling occurred at the Department of Health (DOH) following cuts of US$21.25 million to its 2016 budget for contraceptives. The DOH is now hoping health partners and private donors will step in to help.

Who will step in to help will be the new Department of Health (DOH) Secretary, Dr Paulyn Jean Rosell Ubial, a former assistant health secretary. Not only was she a strong supporter of the RH law and a vocal advocate of family planning, she also knows where in her Department the reluctance lies to fully implement the RH Act’s provisions.

Certainly, this legislation is a major piece of reform. But simply having it on the statute books is not going to help prevent women struggling with five kids from having more. Poor households bear more children than richer ones – an average of 5.2 per mother compared to 1.9.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who favours a three-child policy, is committed to promoting birth control as part of his overall drive to reduce poverty and boost employment. And one thing that Dr Ubial can be sure of is that she will have 100% of his support to bring family planning – complete with free condoms – to women right across the Philippines who have been crying out for it for years. This week, Ubial announced that the DOH would have a family-planning programme ready within six months to implement fully the RH Law.

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