It was an awkward situation: There I was, stuck in a windowless conference room, talking sex with a Catholic priest. Not just any priest an Archbishop, sitting under a portrait of the Pope.
It was April 2008, and His Excellency Paciano Aniceto and I had met in Manila to discuss his position on contraception. As a member of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, Aniceto has been a prominent anticondom campaigner, denouncing all forms of "artificial" contraception despite demand from the people and a population boom that the national economy can't handle. Like most Catholic leaders in the Philippines, he says birth control pills and condoms are "antilife" and argues that contraception is a gateway to abortion. Both are claims his allies are likely to trot out this week as the Philippines and much of the world considers the Pope's comment that condoms may be used, in rare circumstances, to stop the spread of HIV but should not be used as birth control.
Aniceto is slight, gray-haired and soft-spoken the definition, I thought, of grandfatherly. He spoke at length about the value of family and the power of faith. Then he talked about menstruation specifically, how women should track their menstrual cycle and abstain from sex when fertile. The best birth control is "self-mastery," he said. Condoms "encourage promiscuity among the youth." And so it went, until somewhere between "thickening of the uterine wall" and "propagandists of a culture of death," it hit me: this is a priest. He's not a grandfather or a father. Presumably, he's never had sex at least not in a very, very long time.
As Catholics and critics digest the Pope's most recent pronouncement on prophylactics, the Philippines, a conservative, majority-Catholic nation of some 92 million, is mired in debate about family planning, population and the place of the Catholic Church in the 21st century. Over the past few decades, most countries have embraced family planning and modern methods of contraception despite opposition from the church. The Philippines, however, has moved away from the mainstream on matters of reproductive rights, condemning condoms and prohibiting abortion under any circumstances. In the Philippines, the bishops and their allies in government have cast contraception as a violation of God's will, an affront to national identity and a threat to public health.
And for the most part, it's worked. Despite sustained grass-roots activism from antipoverty and women's-rights groups, talk of contraception remains taboo, and efforts to pass "family planning" or "reproductive health" laws (even the terminology itself is contentious) have failed repeatedly. The national government won't spend a cent on contraceptives, and though municipalities are technically allowed to buy them, many won't. The middle class can buy birth control only privately; the poor simply go without. While much of the country subsists on a few dollars a day, its growth rate, which the World Bank pegs at 1.8%, is among the highest in the world.
Of course, large families alone do not cause poverty. Feudal landholding practices, endemic corruption and uneven growth keep many Filipinos poor. But high rates of unplanned pregnancy have stymied the country and its people, with population growth outpacing economic development. Research shows that nutrition, health and educational opportunities decrease when a family grows beyond its means a fact that many women, as heads of household, understand all too well. Every year, an estimated 1,000 Filipinas die trying to induce abortions, and thousands more are injured.
This could change. This week a House committee will begin deliberation on the Reproductive Health bill, a piece of legislation that could help dramatically reduce unplanned pregnancies. The proposed law acknowledges that the government has a responsibility to inform its citizens about modern birth control methods as well as church-backed, "natural" approaches. Though it does not decriminalize abortion (which is constitutionally prohibited), it would allow federal funding for reproductive-health programs and pave the way for condoms and birth control pills to be made available at public clinics. The law would go a long way toward helping poor women space or limit the number of children they have, a right many have long been denied. It could also curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV), cut maternal mortality and yield economic benefits at the family, municipal and national levels.
That is, if it passes. The Catholic leadership in Manila has blocked reproductive-health laws for the past 15 years and has vowed to do it again. The bill's fate now lies in the hands of the country's politicians particularly new President Benigno Aquino III, or "Noynoy" as he's widely known. The legislation will first be debated in the lower house. If it passes, it must make it through the upper house and then be approved again by both houses before the President signs it into law.
The President's leadership will be critical at every stage. As the revered son of pro-democracy leaders Benigno Aquino Jr. and Corazon Aquino, Noynoy is uniquely positioned to stand up to the bishops. With 80% approval ratings in local polls more than six months after his election, he's still wildly popular. He's also a practicing Catholic who, like many Filipinos, believes contraception and Catholicism can coexist. In his first five months in office, he's vowed to support the new measure on the grounds that family planning will both save and improve lives. The church leaders reacted to this stance with characteristic fury, threatening to excommunicate the President. Uncharacteristically, they've since backed down. Noynoy has the bishops' ears. It's high time they listened.