Population Control in the Philippines – NC Register

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Wrangle Over Legislation set to roll on After Election

Mass at Greenbelt, Makati City. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

MANILA – It is 6pm in Greenbelt, one of Manila’s high-end shopping malls. Elsewhere, commuters are stopping-off for a post-work coffee or browsing through the array of boutique names next door to the chapel. But bang-in-the-middle of the mall, a dome-shaped part-open church is packed for evening Mass – one of four celebrated there each day. Passers-by genuflect or bless themselves, gingerly laying down their shopping as they pause on their way.

Out of 92 million people, 85 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, and the country is well-known for eye-catching displays of public devotion. During the election season, daily vigils and prayer services were held all over the country. Inside the election commission hq, statues of the Virgin Mary and posters exhorting the recitation of novenas sat between nuts-and-bolts election information for parties, voters, candidates and media.

An ongoing battle over a ‘Reproductive Health’ Bill looks set to roll on into the new administration. Winning Presidential ticket Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III opposes the Church position on the bill. At time of writing, with 90% of votes counted, Aquino had 40% % , with former President Estrada, who also backs the RH bill, second on 25%. Early front-runner and business billionaire Manny Villar finished a distant third on 11%. He publicly-backed the Church’s take on RH, but well before he spoke out his popularity was on the slide due to corruption allegations.

The Church says that the bill is contrary to the 1987 Constitution as it promotes the use of abortifacients. The

constitution, which enshrines the right to life from conception to natural death, was brought in under Cory Aquino, amid country-wide jubilation at the peaceful toppling of the Marcos dictatorship. After Mrs Aquino died last August, a national catharsis pushed her low-profile son ‘Noynoy’ into the spotlight. Attempting to discern what to do, he went on retreat in a Carmelite monastery before settling on a Presidential run.

Aquino's final campaign rally had this message for Cardinal Rosales. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

However it is not clear what the results say about Filipinos’ view on the bill. There are a few possible reasons for this. Firstly, politics in the Philippines is personality-oriented, with issues and parties often secondary, as lamented by Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales.

That lends itself to mixed messages. Sr Mary Pilar I Verzosa runs a shelter for abused women and girls. She also founded the country’s pro-life movement 35 years ago. She told the Register that “being pro-life means more than just supporting the Church position on the RH Bill”. The often-brutal reality of life in parts of the Philippines is seen in its grinding poverty, and more directly, in Muslim and Communist rebellions and terror campaigns. There are dozens of private militias linked to politicians and hired hits are all too common.

Sr Pilar welcomed Villar’s support for the Church view. However his ostentatious campaign-spending came across as a distasteful parody of his rags-to-riches/self-made-man background, according to Sr Pilar. “Why didn’t he use some his wealth in a better way, and live up to his talk about being pro-poor?”, she asked.

In a country where 40% of the population is below the national poverty line, with another 8% of Filipinos working overseas and providing an economic lifeline to sustains millions of families back home, breadline concerns likely predominate. So voters are not necessarily in tune with all the issues. Two surveys carried out before the election attest to the difficulty in establishing what exactly the millions of Catholic Filipinos think or even know about the RH bill debate. Carried-out by the Filipino affiliate of Gallup international, the Family Research Survey found that 73% of respondents did not know the bill existed. The same survey found that over 90% of those who took part opposed the bill , as it prioritises the biological aspects of sex education over the moral. But blurring the lines even more, a separate pre-election survey by the Pulse Asia group claimed that 64% of Filipinos would vote for candidates who publicly promote modern methods of family planning.

Manila Cathedral. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The country’s population has increased from 48 million in 1980 to 66 million in 1990 to 92 million today. While the numbers loom large, population growth has decreased, having reached a zenith of 3% in the 1960s.

On the surface, this might lend weight to the the views espoused by proponents of population control proponents, backed by the usual suspects from western donor countries and NGOs, who are pushing the RH bill. Incoming President Aquino said “I believe we have a population problem. I believe I have a responsibility to help so that our children have the opportunity to live better lives” .

So does Noynoy’s landslide mean the country is lining up to support his take on RH? Msgr. Pedro Quitorio is spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines. Speaking to the Register near Manila Cathedral in Intramuros, the city’s former Spanish colonial bastion, he said that “the country’s most pressing problems today are bad governance and corruption”. Aquino made ‘going after those who steal’ a cornerstone of his campaign. This compelling and dynamic-sounding soundbite added to his reputation for clean politics and apparent disinterest in material gain.

Widespread political corruption has practical implications for some of the issues the bill seeks to address. “It talks about maternal healthcare, and that is necessary”, says Msgr Quitorio. “But the Government is already obliged to build a decent health system in rural areas, there is a budget to build clinics. But when funds are allocated for this they disappear, and the clinics have not been built. This is what needs to be tackled.”

Since 1998 neighbouring Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation – has made remarkable strides in establishing a working democracy. It is arguably now the priority country in southeast Asia for the US, outranking official allies Thailand and the Philippines. Indonesia’s 17000 islands have a population of over 250 million, yet it is rare to hear of western governments or NGOs promoting the idea that it is overpopulated.

A better-run country led by more honest politicians could then do something about the country’s basket-case economy, better-enabling it to sustain a large population? So the question now is will Aquino tackle the vested interests and often violent cronyism that so hampers his country? This will likely prove more challenging, as well as more beneficial, than confronting the Church over a bill which will see “Grade 5 students receiving demonstrations about how to put on a condom”, as Sr Pilar put it.

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