Filipino President Bernard Aquino is backing a bill that promises free or subsidized contraception for women, especially for the poor. As a story in Bloomberg describes, the bill was actually introduced in the legislature 14 years ago but has been blocked every time by the Catholic Church. About 37 percent of pregnancies in the Philippines are unplanned, says the World Health Organization, with at least one-third ending in an illegal and highly unsafe abortion, says the Guttmacher Institute.
Moreover, it is the poorest fifth of the country’s population that has the highest birth rate. The 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey found that the poorest women have an average of 5.2 children, while the wealthiest women have an average of 1.9. In addition, 44.1 percent of women aged 15 to 24 in the bottom income bracket have begun to have children. The Bloomberg article opens with the story of 34-year-old Lorna Villar, who has given birth seven times in the past fourteen years. She and her family live in one of Manila’s poorest neighborhoods, Tondo, in a 215 square foot room, on the 7,000 pesos ($160) a month that her husband earns from driving cranes and a tricycle taxi.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that by making modern birth control — the contraceptive pill, condoms, intrauterine devices and others — available to all women in the Philippines, there would be 2,100 fewer maternal deaths and 500,000 fewer induced abortions each year. According to Bloomberg, 34 percent of Filipina women aged 15 to 49 use modern birth control.
The country’s population growth is currently twice the average for Asian countries; its self-rated poverty rate was 52 percent in 2012. As activist Carlos Cedran points out, with the Philippines’ population nearing 100 million, a lot more has to be done than just “teaching the poor.” Likhaan, a non-governmental organization that provides modern birth control and where Villar had her IUD fitted, says that providing contraceptive to all Filipina women means go a long way to reducing unplanned pregnancies in young women and improve their economic circumstances. Currently women wait as long as two hours to obtain condoms and birth-control pills at Likhaan’s clinic.
President Aquino’s support could be key to passing the bill to ensure that all women have access to modern birth control; it is hoped that the measure will be put to a vote in congress in the next three months. About 80 percent of the Philippines’ 95 million people are Roman Catholic and the Church seems likely to try to block the measure again. “Who are we to say that five children are too many? Children are gifts. If you interfere with that, you are denying that creative role God gave us,” says James Imbong, assistant legal counsel to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in Bloomberg. But should not the Church do more to help those — certainly including women — living in deep poverty to have a better life and better prospects?
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