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.