MANILA (Reuters) - Fliers placed at the entrance to most churches in the Philippines request donations for the poor, list upcoming special events or simply ask for prayers.
But in the heart of Manila’s business district, one chapel has put up a petition opposing a family planning bill before Congress and asking the faithful in this predominantly Roman Catholic country to sign.
The bill on maternal health care, which requires the government to promote artificial contraception if it becomes law, has become a battleground between the powerful church and activists in the staunchly Roman Catholic nation.
Some bishops have said they will refuse communion and other sacraments to politicians who support the bill, set to be discussed this month in the House of Representatives.
Others warn that the church’s crucial backing in the 2010 presidential and congressional elections will only be given to those who oppose the bill.
“I have never seen the bishops so aggressive in a campaign to block a piece of social legislation as in this case against the reproductive health care bill,” said Aries Rufo, a journalist who has been covering church issues for more than a decade.
“In the last six attempts to legislate a population policy, a bill never gets out of the committee level in the lower house. It is only now that the chance of passing a law on family planning is really high.”
The bill was approved by the House Committee on Health last month, setting the stage for a test of strength with the church, which has played a key role in the ouster of two presidents in the past three decades and blocked legislation on divorce, abortion and family planning.
Currently the government leaves family planning issues to local governments and few of them promote artificial contraception.
The church advocates abstinence to control population.
While a relatively small middle class in the Philippines can easily afford contraceptives, millions of poor women cannot. A month’s supply of the pill costs 39 pesos or around $0.86, around half the average daily salary of almost half the population.
Without an effective birth control policy, the Philippines, already the world’s 12th most populous country with 90 million people, is projected to have a population of over 140 million by 2040. This will put a huge strain on its creaking health system, schools and other services, and its ability to feed itself.
The global food crisis earlier this year created shock waves in the Philippines, which is the world’s largest importer of rice. The nation has been struggling to make itself self-reliant in the staple, but the galloping population outpaces gains in production.
An opinion survey done by independent pollster Social Weather Station showed nearly 7 out of 10 Filipinos, most of them Catholics, support legislation on maternal health care.
“Our policy-makers and lawmakers should listen to the voice of the people,” said Benjamin de Leon, president of a group advocating family planning policies and programs.
“We’re being left behind by our Southeast Asian neighbors because our population has been growing faster than our economy. It’s about time our lawmakers approve a sound population policy.”
The United Nations and World Bank have thrown strong support behind the bill in a move to help the Philippines catch up and meet its targets under the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.
But back in Manila’s Santo Nino de Paz chapel, thousands have signed the petition opposing the bill, fearing it may lead to looser public morals.
“I am signing it, not only because I am a devout Catholic, but I fear our morality would be eroded by the proposed law,” said Maripaz Balagot, an employee of a large insurance company in the capital.
Congresswoman Janette Garin, a medical doctor by profession, told Reuters she was confident the controversial bill would be passed despite strong lobbying by Catholic bishops.
“We already have the numbers,” Garin said. However, other legislators have expressed doubt given the pressure from Catholic bishops who started talking one-on-one with lawmakers.
The bill will then go to the Senate and will be sent to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo if passed by both houses.
The stand of some leaders is difficult to gauge.
Arroyo, for instance, has declined to take a definite position on the issue, leaving population policy-making to lawmakers and local government executives.
Even her own Cabinet has no solid stand. While some would follow the dictates of the Catholic bishops, others, like Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral, a cardiologist by profession, strongly support the proposed law.
“It’s just the politicians who are scared of not being voted in because of the church’s ‘wrath’. Filipinos themselves have always been somewhat secular,” Carlos Celdran, a strong advocate of the reproductive health bill, told Reuters.
Celdran has been using the popular internet-based social networking site “Facebook” to campaign for and debate against the opponents of the bill.
“Hopefully, the passage of this bill will show that the church has lost its grip on politics and politicians.”
Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Bill Tarrant