The Philippines is known as a bastion of the Catholic faith in eastern Asia, and to a certain extent the country’s laws reflect this reputation. Divorce isn’t recognized, though the state grants annulments. Abortion remains illegal, though it is rarely prosecuted.
Still, many Filipinos view Catholicism ambivalently. A common saying among them is that the Philippines spent 300 years in the convent (a reference to 333 years under Spanish rule), then 50 years in Hollywood (a reference to America’s rule of the country from 1899 to 1946).
It is on issues that relate to sexuality and family that this ambivalence reveals itself most clearly. Newspapers and magazines routinely disparage Catholic stances on these issues (as do academics in both public and Catholic schools). Magazine stands are full of sex-saturated tabloids and “glossies” glorifying Western sexual mores. Billboards on major thoroughfares feature provocatively clad models.
Pre-marital sex is now considered normal, cohabitation is widespread, and Church marriage is increasingly seen as impractical. The Archdiocese of Manila, with about 2.8 million Catholics, had only 5,997 church marriages in 2007; in the same year, a provincial diocese with 614,200 Catholics registered only 158 church marriages, according to the Catholic Directory of the Philippines for 2008-2009.]
Not surprisingly, the Philippines has a growing anti-life lobby. Its origins can be traced to the 1970s, when it gained an unexpected patron—Ferdinand Marcos.
IT STARTED WITH MARCOS
He was the first Philippine president to promote “family planning.” The year after the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, he forced through the passage of a new Constitution that called on “the state to achieve and maintain population levels most conducive to the national welfare” (Art. XV, Section 10). Soon thereafter cheap contraceptives and sterilization procedures became available in government-operated clinics.
But then the People Power Revolution in February 1986 ushered in the presidency of the devoutly Catholic Corazon Aquino (1986-1992). Her administration formulated the pro-life statutes that still form the basis of government policies on family life issues. The 1987 Constitution was strongly influenced by Catholic principles, as demonstrated by Article II, Section 12:
The state recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution. It shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception…
The 1987 Constitution also has an entire article dedicated to the family (Article XV), saying in part:
Section 1. The state recognizes the Filipino family as the foundation of the nation. Accordingly, it shall strengthen its solidarity and actively promote its total development.
Section 2. Marriage, as an inviolable social institution, is the foundation of the family and shall be protected by the state.
This constitutional article serves as the main legal protection against attempts to legalize abortion, divorce, and euthanasia, as well as protection against the aggressive promotion of contraception by the state.
Nevertheless, beginning in 1987, members of both the House of Representatives and the Philippine Senate started to introduce bills promoting contraception and other anti-life measures. Due to the opposition of pro-life lawmakers and the Church, none of these bills have been passed into law.
Aware of the difficulties of pushing their agenda legislatively, the anti-life lobby has sought to affect public policy through the executive branch. In the later years of the Corazon Aquino administration, the government began to listen again to this lobby, launching a family planning program in 1990 that included a two-child policy.
In a pastoral letter entitled Love is Life (October 7, 1990), the Philippine bishops lamented that “contraceptive technology has entered into the lifestyle of our people. It has produced an anti-life mentality. Not only the underprivileged, but even the privileged plan to raise only two children in the entire course of their married life…”
At the same time, the bishops called upon government personnel and officials not to act on any orders contrary to Catholic moral teaching, and to reflect the convictions of their faith even in their public decisions. In the end, the Aquino administration’s family planning program didn’t get off the ground.
But under the first Filipino Protestant president, Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), family planning with an emphasis on contraceptives again became official state policy through the Department of Health, continuing into the time of Joseph Estrada, who was president for two and a half years until a massive corruption scandal resulted in his ouster in January 2001.
When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was installed as president in January 2001, she promised to listen to the advice of Catholic bishops. But the national government continues to make contraceptives available, though it is nowhere near the levels it attained under the two previous administrations.
THE CURRENT STALEMATE
Today, the anti-life lobby’s attempts to impose the contraceptive mentality on the Filipino people have shifted back to the legislature.
House Bill 5063, also known as the “Reproductive Health Bill,” was filed in 2008 by a group of congressmen led by noted leftists Edcel C. Lagman and Ana Theresa Hontiveros-Baraquel. This House Bill is arguably the most militantly anti-life piece of legislation ever crafted in the Philippines, and replicates the content of several anti-life bills that had been filed unsuccessfully in the two previous Congresses.
Section 9 of the bill provides for free tubal ligation, vasectomy, and abortifacients for the poor. Section 10 requires all hospitals to purchase contraceptives and abortifacients. Section 12 provides for comprehensive sexual education for children in the 10-16 age bracket. Section 16 enunciates the “two-child policy,” declaring that the state shall “assist” couples in achieving this goal while claiming to forswear sanctions for those who do not limit themselves to only two children.
Section 17 requires employers to provide free contraceptives for their workers. Section 21 requires not only public but even private and Catholic health care providers and doctors to either disseminate information on contraception (including the abortifacients promoted by the bill) and to perform vasectomies and ligations, or to cooperate in the same by referring patients to doctors who willingly perform these services.
The “Reproductive Health Bill” triggered the vigorous opposition of the Church, resulting in a pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines entitled Standing Up for the Gospel of Life (November 14, 2008). But even as the Church’s pro-life machinery went into high gear, a second and potentially more dangerous bill quietly made its way through Congress: the “Magna Carta for Women” (Senate Bill 2396 and House Bill 4273).
This bill defines gender as “referring to the socially differentiated roles, characteristics, and expectations attributed by culture to women and men”—a frontal assault on the Church’s teaching about the identity of men and women. The bill proposes that school curricula combat “gender stereotypes and images” and rely on gender-sensitive language. Finally, Section 15 (1) of the bill speaks of “the right to enter into and leave partnerships and relationships without prejudice to personal or religious beliefs.” This clause implicitly gives legal recognition to all manner of partnerships and relationships, contrary to the fact that Philippine law recognizes only one kind of partnership or relationship—marriage.
The Senate version of the Magna Carta was passed by the Senate on March 4, 2009. The House of Representatives will take up its version of the bill once it resumes its session on April 13. However, the Senate version of the Magna Carta was not passed before its most objectionable contents had been modified at the request of the Catholic bishops (although the version actually passed by the Senate has not yet been posted on the Philippine Senate’s website). It remains to be seen whether the House of Representatives will adopt the more Church-friendly version adopted by the Senate, or if it will insist on the original version.
PROSPECTS FOR THE FUTURE
There is reason to hope that the Reproductive Health Bill will not be passed before Congress adjourns in 2010, thus automatically killing it. Aside from the fact that many congressmen are planning to interpellate the proponents of the bill, the 2010 elections are approaching and few politicians appear willing at this time to make an enemy of the Catholic Church. Although there is no “Catholic vote” in the Philippines, many electoral candidates continue to seek the blessing of bishops, and in many provinces the wrath of the local bishop can still spell defeat for a politician.
There is also the presidential veto. Although President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo has been the target of fierce political criticism from a few Catholic bishops and archbishops and from activist clerics, many bishops continue to support her presidency. Macapagal- Arroyo is widely expected to veto any bills that do not conform to Catholic doctrine on human life and sexuality.
In the event that a presidential veto is overturned, the last hope would be the Supreme Court of the Philippines. The Philippine Constitution is so overtly pro-life that it is difficult to see how any of the anti-life laws now pending before Congress would pass muster before the Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, there are still reasons for concern. From 1986 to 2006, the Philippine Supreme Court was headed by a series of devoutly Catholic chief justices who spoke openly about their religious convictions. However, in December 2006, Reynato Puno, a Methodist preacher and a past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of the Philippines, was appointed chief justice. While his affiliations do not necessarily mean that he will not uphold the Constitution’s pro-life provisions, his adherence to bodies that have been traditionally hostile to the Catholic Church is still cause for unease among many Catholics.
The next battle is set for the period after the presidential elections in 2010. Should the next president openly defy the Church on life issues, there is a strong possibility that laws legalizing divorce, abortion and more aggressive pro-contraception measures will finally be passed. Furthermore, there is growing pressure to amend the 1987 Constitution after 2010, and while the amendments proposed are chiefly economic in nature, there are also proposals to weaken the pro-life sections of the charter in order to allow for more permissive laws.