In Majority Catholic Philippines, Duterte Orders Better Access To Birth Control

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered government agencies to expand access to contraception, especially for poor women. By 2018, he instructs, all poor households in the country should have "zero unmet need for modern family planning."

Duterte's executive order, signed Monday and announced on Wednesday, is the latest development in a long battle over birth control in the majority-Catholic Philippines. It pits the president, who says family planning is critical for reducing poverty, against the country's Supreme Court and Catholic leadership.

Four years ago — after more than a decade of debate, negotiations and lobbying in Congress — the Philippines passed a law guaranteeing universal access to birth control. But the full implementation of that law has been blocked by court orders and budget cuts.

Birth control has long been available in the Philippines for middle class and wealthy women, but it is priced out of reach of the country's poor. Abortion is illegal, with no express exceptions.

More than half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unintended, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and more than 90 percent of unintended pregnancies occurred in the absence of modern contraceptive methods.

Polls show that most Filipinos support the Reproductive Health Law, which calls not just for access to contraception (subsidized or free, for poor couples), but also sexual health education and reproductive health care services.

But it has been strongly opposed by the powerful Catholic Church. The law was immediately challenged as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court upheld some of the law, but imposed a restraining order limiting the contraceptive methods the government can distribute. Then Congress slashed the budget that was supposed to pay for free or low-cost contraception in many communities.

In November, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines thanked the high court for showing "caution and circumspection" on the implementation of the law.

Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas urged couples to "shun the ways of selfishness" and avoid the "mutual self-degradation" of artificial contraception.

Duterte's order calls on a wide range of government agencies to "intensify and accelerate" services that promote access to contraception.

The order says more than 6 million Filipinas of reproductive age have no access to modern family planning methods, including 2 million women living in poverty.

In a nod to the budgetary limitations, the order also calls for government offices to "engage, collaborate and partner with" nonprofits and the private sector to fully meet demand for family planning resources.

Duterte wants agencies to report back in six months on their progress, and factor expanded access to birth control into their future budget proposals.

The president has made global headlines with his violent crackdown on the drug trade, which has killed thousands of people. The Catholic Church has joined international human rights watchdogs in criticizing the street killings, while Duterte remains popular among the general public.

The famously blunt and frequently profane president has previously indicated his willingness to defy the Catholic Church on the issue of contraception, too.

As the mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, he not only advocated for contraception, but he offered cash rewards for men who underwent vasectomies, The Associated Press reports. And he vowed to bring the same attitude to family planning to the national level

"I will reinstall the program of family planning." Duterte said in June, before taking office, the AP writes. "Three's enough."

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, shown at a news conference at Davao's international airport on Dec. 17, says family planning is critical for reducing poverty. Manman Dejeto/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most Catholic countries in the world will give free birth control to millions of women

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an executive order directing government agencies to provide contraception to 6 million Filipino women who don't have access to birth control and other reproductive health-related services.

The executive order implements landmark legislation signed by Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012, also called the RPRH Act, provides poor women access to reproductive health information and services. The law, which was fiercely opposed by antiabortion advocates, “recognizes the right of Filipinos to decide freely and responsibly on their desired number and spacing of children,” according to the executive order signed Monday.

Citing 2013 findings by the Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey, the order states that at least 6 million Filipino women, including 2 million who are poor, don't have access to contraception. The administration said it hopes to meet this need for all poor women by 2018.

Duterte has ordered several government agencies, including the education and health departments, to implement policies and mechanisms designed to meet the requirements of the RPRH Act. These include a comprehensive “gender-sensitive” sexuality education in the school curriculum, health insurance benefit packages for women and on-the-ground education campaigns.

“There is a plan in the next six months for local governments to go out in the field, to do house-to-house visits, identify those in need of family planning [and work] with all these agencies,” National Economic and Development Authority Director General Ernesto Pernia told reporters Wednesday.

One of the Duterte administration's socioeconomic agenda items is strengthening the RPRH Act “to enable poor couples to make informed choices on financial and family planning,” the order says.

But the government's efforts are likely to face strong resistance from the Catholic Church. About 80 percent of the country's population — about 74.2 million people — are Roman Catholic, according to the last census of the National Statistics Office in 2010.

Implementation of the RPRH Act, which sat in Congress for more than a decade before it was enacted, has been bogged down in the courts.

In July 2015, when about 400,000 birth control implants had already been acquired, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against distribution of the implants, which can prevent pregnancies for up to three years, and against renewal of licenses for other contraceptives, according to CNN Philippines. The order was issued after antiabortion groups, believing that contraceptives cause abortions, fought the law in court.

The government is seeking to have the restraining order lifted.

“The government cannot continue to tolerate this delay in judgment,” Pernia told reporters.

After the law was signed in December 2012, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which staunchly opposed the bill in Congress, sought to invalidate it in court. But in 2014, the Supreme Court found the controversial law, except for a few sections, to be constitutional, GMA News reported.

One section that was declared void would have required private and religious hospitals to refer patients to other facilities that provide contraception and other services. Others would have punished providers for not distributing reproductive health-related information to patients and would have allowed minors to receive family planning services without their parents' consent.

Following the ruling, the Rev. Melvin Castro of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines told reporters that he respects the court's decision. But, he said, according to GMA News, he will not let “the gospel teaching be compromised.”

Duterte, the tough-talking former mayor who is also known as the Philippines' “Dirty Harry,” has long been in favor of contraception. He has also spoken favorably of the LGBT community and same-sex marriage.

“It's good; everyone deserves to be happy,” he said of same-sex marriage during a television interview in 2015, adding that he does not like to see gays being bullied.

Duterte has vowed that the RPRH Act will be implemented under his watch. In his first State of the Union address in July, he said the law will help ensure that poor people are able to adequately care and provide for their children, “eventually making them more productive members of the labor force.”

Last June, Duterte accused the Catholic Church of keeping the public “in total ignorance” about birth control and using faith to scare them.

“You tell the children that they will go to hell. You always use that to scare them. But that is not true. Hell is here,” he said during a TV show, according to news website Politiko.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the average annual birthrate in the Philippines — 24 births per 1,000 people — is higher than in many Asian countries, including China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.

This Country Is Challenging the Catholic Church By Giving Away Free Birth Control

If Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gets his way, some millions of Filipino women could soon have access to free birth control and other reproductive health-related services.

The controversial president—best known for his violent approach to the nation's drug war and the obscenity he launched at U.S. President Barack Obama in October—this week signed an executive order that implements long-languishing legislation called the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RPRH) Act of 2012. The law gives poor women access to reproductive health information and services, stating that it “recognizes the right of Filipinos to decide freely and responsibly on their desired number and spacing of children.” It estimates that some 6 million women in the Philippines—including 2 million who are poor—don't currently have access to birth control. Duterte's administration aims to provide all poor women with contraception by 2018.

The law's passages is especially notable since the Catholic Church vehemently opposes birth control—and the nation is 80% Roman Catholic. On a visit to the Philippines in 2015, Pope Francis issued what was then described as his strongest defense yet of the church's ban on artificial contraception. He urged Philippine families to be "sanctuaries of respect for life."

Affordable family planning measures are a vital issue in the Philippines. Birth control is available, but its price makes it accessible only to wealthy or middle class Filipinos. Abortion is illegal. The nation has 24 births per 1,000 people—the 66th highest among 226 countries, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. And according the United Nations, the Philippines is the only Asian country where the teenage pregnancy rate has risen in the past two decades.

The country passed a universal birth control law four years ago after more than a decade of debate, but a court order and budget cuts have hampered its full implementation. A July 2015 Supreme Court decision in favor of anti-abortion groups issued a temporary restraining order halting the distribution of birth control implants after 400,000 of the devices had already been distributed. Congress later slashed the budget that was intended to fund free or low-cost contraceptives. Duterte's executive order is an effort to sidestep those hurdles.

Reuters reports that the country's Catholic bishops have accused Duterte of pushing "anti-life" measures, and they've asked people to join a "grand procession" next month to take a stand.

Duterte, who's also Catholic, appears unmoved. Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial said his administration "is bent on implementing these provisions to ensure that Filipinos' access to family planning and means to space and limit the number of children will not be curtailed."

Duterte has made family planning a pillar of his anti-poverty agenda, vowing to implement the RPRH Act during his tenure and accusing the church of relying on scare tactics while keeping citizens "in total ignorance" about birth control. In his State of the Union in July, he said the law will let poor people adequately care for their children, “eventually making [those children] more productive members of the labor force.”

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