Philippine President Benigno Aquino defeated a former world boxing champion and leaders of the Catholic Church yesterday as lawmakers chose to advance 14-year-old legislation to fund free family planning.
The House of Representatives voted to end debate on a bill that would provide free contraceptives to stem unwanted pregnancies in a country where population growth is twice the Asian average. Bishops and world welterweight boxing champion Manny Pacquiao led criticism of the proposal on religious grounds, testing the political clout of church leaders who helped Aquino’s late mother rise to power in 1986.
“This has been a longstanding battle for a Philippine church which has, for most of its history, been dominated by the more conservative faction among its clerics,” said Julius Bautista, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore. “The passage of this bill would be the latest setback in a larger political landscape in which the church is losing the ability to influence policy.”
Endorsement of the bill, which still requires a final House vote and Senate approval, would mark a victory for Aquino, whose approval rating among the Philippines’s 104 million people remains at about 70 percent after two years in office. The United Nations has said it will help reduce poverty among the 20 million people living in slum conditions as the country becomes wealthier with annual economic growth of more than 5 percent.
While population control measures such as China’s one-child policy may have adverse economic effects, providing birth control to poor citizens is a normal practice, according to Chua Hak Bin, an economist in Singapore at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The Philippines’s labor force is set to “grow dramatically” over the next decade as the nation undergoes the biggest population boom among Asian countries, he said.
“It will demand that the government cope and generate sufficient jobs to manage this huge surge in the numbers,” Chua said. “History suggests that there are social risks if the government isn’t able to provide sufficient employment.”
The nation’s stock market and currency are among Asia’s best performers this year, with the Philippine Stock Exchange Index surging 21 percent and the peso gaining 4.8 percent. The central bank last month cut interest rates a third time this year to a record low, as easing inflation gives policy makers scope to spur growth that led Southeast Asia at 6.4 percent in the first quarter. The nation’s financial markets are shut today because of flooding in Manila and nearby provinces.
The 23-page bill, which has been introduced and blocked repeatedly since 1998, calls for mandatory sex education and requires the government to pay for contraceptives and family planning services for poor people. Lawmakers in the 284-member House of Representatives yesterday agreed to end debate on the proposal and proceed to a mandatory amendment period before it heads to an up-or-down vote.
“It has never gone this far,” House Majority leader Neptali Gonzales told reporters yesterday. “Even though it’s as slow as a tortoise, it’s moving forward.”
A similar bill would need to be approved by the 23-member Senate and reconciled with the lower-house version before Aquino can sign it into law. The Senate will probably vote on the proposal if it’s approved in the House, Manuel Mamba, Aquino’s liaison officer to Congress, said before yesterday’s meeting of the lower house.
About 9,000 nuns, priests and churchgoers wearing red clothes rallied to oppose the bill three days ago amid steady rainfall in Manila. The protesters described themselves as pro-life and distributed pamphlets that also denounced divorce and same-sex marriage in addition to the bill.
Angelo Arellano, a 20-year-old seminarian who plans to become a priest in about eight years, attended the rally with 50 of his classmates from the northern province of Tarlac, about a three-hour drive from Manila.
“If you are a parent, will you kill your child?” Arellano said. “That’s what the RH Bill does. The Lord said go forth and multiply. Why do they want to control the spread of mankind?”
Mike Velarde, leader of the Catholic group El Shaddai whose son is a member of Congress, said the bill was tantamount to “pre-emptive abortion.” The organization says it has six million members in the Philippines and can deliver half as many votes during elections.
“The objective of this bill is to kill the Filipino race,” Velarde said in a speech at the rally. “This culture of death is foreign to us. It is against the word of God.”
Filipino women give birth about 3.1 times during their lifetime, compared with an average fertility rate of 2.1 in Asia and the Pacific, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The population is growing at 1.7 percent a year, compared with 0.9 throughout the rest of Asia, UN data show.
While the wealthiest 20 percent of women in the Philippines have an average of 1.9 babies, the poorest fifth deliver 5.2, according to the 2008 National Demographic and Health Survey. In the bottom income-bracket, 44.1 percent of women aged 15 to 24 had begun childbearing, according to the survey, more than three times the number of the wealthiest 20 percent in the same age range.
Aquino, who has said he’s prepared to be excommunicated from the church over the bill, is confident Congress will make it a law, according to spokesman Ricky Carandang. A vote to continue the debate would have killed its chances of passing this year, according to Prospero de Vera, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines in Manila.
“The only possible backlash is if the church campaigns against the President’s candidates next year,” De Vera said. “But that is not practical for the Church” because Aquino has supporters that are both for and against the bill, he said.
Aquino may also have benefited from former President Gloria Arroyo’s opposition to the bill, according to Earl Parreno, a political analyst from the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. Seven legislators linked to Arroyo last week withdrew support for the measure, the Manila Bulletin reported, citing House minority leader Danilo Suarez.
Aquino’s administration has targeted Arroyo since he took office, including filing charges against her for election fraud. Freed on bail last month, Arroyo showed up for the vote yesterday in a red suit, distinguishing herself from proponents of the bill donning purple. Pacquiao, who wore a red tie to the vote, declined to be interviewed.
“Aquino remains popular and he could use public disfavor of Arroyo to rally support and speed up the bill’s approval,” Parreno said. “Politics, not discontent with the substance of the measure, appears to be hindering its passage, and this could actually help the administration.”