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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Bishops becoming isolated in battle over birth control


By Christine F. Herrera

THE Catholic Church is increasingly becoming isolated on the issue of family planning as other major religious groups have joined forces to support the reproductive health bill in Congress.

So far, that alliance includes the Iglesia Ni Cristo, the Jesus is Lord Movement, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, and Muslim leaders who see value in curbing the country’s rapid population growth.

The bill, which seeks to establish a national policy on family planning, has also won support from various government agencies, the academic community, and civil society, workers’ and women’s groups.

The Catholic Church opposes the bill because it supports artificial birth control methods such as the use of condoms, and has launched a vociferous campaign against it.

But the measure’s principal author, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, says the divisions are not theological.

“This is not a religious war. Most of the co-authors are also devout Catholics,” Lagman said of some 108 lawmakers who had agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

“But there is an emerging victory of progressive advocacy over orthodox dogma.” The bastion of opposition to the bill, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, has not conceded the fight, and a ranking member yesterday urged lawmakers who support the bill to resign and “stop pretending they are representing the people.”

Mati, Davao, Bishop Patricio Alo said these lawmakers should listen to their constituents, referring to the fact that most Filipinos are nominal Catholics. But Lagman countered that Alo was refusing to see that many Catholics wanted to control their fertility and plan their families.

He added that 90 percent of Catholics in a recent Pulse Asia survey said the state should finance the use of modern contraceptives, which are expressly prohibited by the Church.

All the authors and the religious groups supporting the bill reject abortion as a method of family planning, but they realize something must be done to slow down population growth, estimated at about two million babies a year.

Religious leaders outside the Catholic Church informed Congress of their support once they made their official positions known to their respective members. Eddie Villanueva, leader of the Jesus is Lord Movement, had his son, Rep. Joel Villanueva, co-sponsor the bill on Wednesday to signal his support. Iglesia members have also confirmed that their leaders are encouraging them to lobby Congress to pass the bill.

“We, in the Iglesia Ni Cristo, recognize that the population problem, especially in our country, is real. There is a problem because apparently our country’s resources cannot cope with the rapidly growing population,” the Iglesia said in a position paper it submitted to the House committee on health. “While it is sometimes said that the population explosion is not the cause of poverty in our country, you will certainly agree that it is not the solution either.

“In view of this, the Iglesia Ni Cristo supports the efforts of government and non-government organizations to curb the population growth to a sustainable level in order to ensure a decent life for our people. We do our part by exhorting the members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo to become responsible parents and to have only as many children as they can afford to sustain.”

In a scathing rebuff against the Catholic lobby, the Iglesia leaders urged their members to reject the “natural method” supported by Catholic bishops, nuns and ultra-conservative lay organizations as the acceptable alternative to modern methods of family planning such as the use of condoms, contraceptives and injectables.

The influential Catholic Church, through the Couples for Christ, has used P50 million in state funds to exclusively promote the natural method of family planning. Nuns and members of the Catholic Women’s League have also gone to Congress to denounce the proponents of the bill.

But big business, led by the Employers Confederation of the Philippines, has been among the first to throw its support behind the bill.

Among the government agencies that endorsed the Lagman bill are the Interior and Social Welfare departments, Commission on Population, National Academy of Science and Technology, National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, Commission on Higher Education, and the National Economic Development Authority.

“A major factor affecting the delivery of reproductive health products and services in the country is the lack of a comprehensive and definite policy on reproductive health,” Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral has said in position paper.

“Along with this comes the persisting unresolved issue of population increase, which also exacerbates the problems of malnutrition, illiteracy and unemployment.” With Arlie Calalo