April 8 (Bloomberg) -- The Philippine Supreme Court upheld large parts of a government plan to provide free contraceptives to the poor, ruling on a landmark case that pitted President Benigno Aquino against the Catholic Church.
The 15-member court unanimously voted in favor of the constitutional validity of the Reproductive Health Act, rejecting 14 lawsuits from groups that said the government would curb religious freedom by mandating population control. It voided certain provisions involving minors and spousal consent.
“The Reproductive Health Law is not unconstitutional based on the grounds raised,” court spokesman Theodore Te said today at a televised briefing in Manila. The tribunal handed down its ruling “after scrutiny of various arguments and contentions.”
The law would guarantee universal access to contraception methods, fertility control, sex education and maternal care. The United Nations has said it will help reduce poverty among the fifth of the nation’s 107 million people who live in slum conditions.
Aquino, 54, has made implementation of the law one of the hallmarks of his six-year term, which ends in 2016, as he seeks to bolster the economy and stem population growth. On March 27 he witnessed the signing of a peace pact with the nation’s largest Muslim rebel group after a four-decade insurgency that has stifled growth in the mineral-rich south.
“It’s a big win not only for Aquino’s push to curb population growth but also for women who have long defied the church by seeking to control their own bodies,” Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone. “It also shows the Catholic Church doesn’t wield as much political influence as before.”
One in five women of reproductive age in the Philippines has an unmet family planning need, the UN Population Fund says, leading to unintended pregnancies. The population is growing by 1.7 percent a year, compared with 1.1 percent for the world as a whole, according to a 2013 UN Population Fund report.
The court has “truly watered down” the law and “upheld the importance of adhering to an informed religious conscience even among government workers,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines said in a statement on its website. “The church must continue to uphold the sacredness of human life,” it said, as it encouraged members to respect the court ruling.
The court nullified some provisions, such as one that gives minors who’ve had a miscarriage access to family planning methods without parental consent, Te said. It struck down a clause that penalizes public officials who refuse to support the law, he said.
The court also voided a provision allowing a person not in an emergency to undergo a reproductive health procedure without spousal consent, Te said.
“What’s important is practically the more important provisions have been retained,” former congressman Edcel Lagman, principal author of the bill, said on ABS-CBN News. The absence of certain clauses won’t affect the law’s efficacy, he said, and the state’s mandate to offer free reproductive health supplies and services to the poor remains.
Seven out of 10 Filipinos favor the law, and 84 percent say the government should provide free contraceptives or services to the poor who wish to plan their family, according to a March poll released by Social Weather Stations yesterday. It surveyed 1,200 people with a margin of error of plus or minus three percent.
“The full and speedy implementation of the law will be critically important in reducing maternal mortality and ensuring universal access to reproductive health care,” the UN said today in an e-mailed statement. The court ruling comes at a crucial time and will set the country on the “right track” for the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals agenda, it said.
Aquino signed the bill into law in December 2012. It was filed and blocked in each three-year congressional term since it was first introduced 16 years ago, amid opposition from the Catholic Church. Eight out of 10 Filipinos are Catholics, according to government data.
The high court halted enforcement of the law in March last year after suits questioning its validity. The parties have 15 days to seek reconsideration of the ruling, Te said.
Aquino’s approval rating fell 6 points to 73% in December after Typhoon Haiyan struck the previous month, Pulse Asia Research said in January. The poll of 1,200 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.
To contact the reporter on this story: Norman P. Aquino in Manila at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at email@example.com Neil Western