Despite opposition from the powerful Roman Catholic Church, a bill that would mandate sex education in schools and subsidise contraceptives moved ahead on Monday after being stalled in the Philippine Congress for 14 years.
“May God have mercy on our Congress,” said Angel N. Lagdameo, an archbishop in the central Philippines, one of a number of church leaders who condemned the measure.
The Philippine House of Representatives voted on Monday to close debate and allow amendments on the bill – not final approval, but an important procedural step. The Reproductive Health Bill, as the measure is known, must also be approved by the Senate and signed by President Benigno S. Aquino III before it can become law, but Aquino strongly backs the bill and his allies control the Senate.
The bill would direct the Department of Health to distribute “medically safe, legal, accessible, affordable and effective reproductive health care services nationwide,” and requires “age-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education” from the fifth grade through high school.
Contraceptives are legal and can be bought readily here, but unlike some other Asian nations with fast-growing populations, the Philippines has no distribution programme to help the poor obtain them.
Aquino, whose mother, Corazon Aquino, led the movement that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s with the backing of the Catholic Church, has said that the Philippines must reduce its high birthrate among the poor. His policy received a rare endorsement on Sunday from the World Health Organization, which said in a statement that “the proposed law will fundamentally enable the government to meet its commitments to its citizens.”
The agency noted that the number of women dying in the Philippines of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth increased 36 percent between 2006 and 2011.
Opponents of the bill held a rally at a historic site in Manila to protest the House action. Supporters of the bill held a candlelight vigil outside the House of Representatives on Sunday.
Though their church condemns all use of contraceptives, Filipino Catholics’ views on the bill are divided. A group of prominent Catholic academics issued a statement arguing that their religious beliefs led them to support the measure, and saying they were “deeply disturbed and saddened” by the church’s opposition to a law “that promises to improve the well-being of Filipino families, especially the lives of women, children, adolescents, and the poor.”
But Catholic leaders and some legislators questioned whether the measure would really benefit the poor. “The draconian population control policy of the Reproductive Health Bill would only curtail our economic growth,” said Jose S. Palma, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.
“The problem of countries with former robust economies is the lack of young workers for their industries and inadequate support for their aging population. Can we have enough of schooled, skilled, diligent and highly driven young people who are a driving force of economic progress?”