Legislators in the Philippines are set to pass a landmark law on Monday that would provide government funding for contraceptives and sexuality classes in schools despite strong opposition by the dominant Roman Catholic Church, which said the measure would destroy family life.
President Benigno Aquino III, who certified the bill as urgent, considers it a major step toward reducing maternal deaths and promoting family planning in the impoverished country, which has one of Asia's fastest-growing populations. Church leaders said in a pastoral letter on Sunday that if passed, the bill would put the moral fibre of the nation at risk.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, vice president of the Philippines' Bishops Conference, said that "the wide and free accessibility of contraceptives will result in the destruction of family life".
"Money for contraceptives can be better used for education and authentic health care," he said, adding that "those who corrupt the minds of children will invoke divine wrath on themselves."
The bill languished in Congress for 10 years as legislators avoided upsetting the conservative bishops, who helped mobilise popular support for the 1986 "people power" revolt that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the 2001 overthrow of another president, Joseph Estrada.
But in a sign of changing times and attitudes, particularly across generations, reformist civil society groups and Aquino threw their weight behind the bill despite the threat of a backlash.
An independent survey in June last year found 68% of respondents agreed that the government should fund all means of family planning. An October survey of 600 teenagers in Manila, the capital, also carried out by the Social Weather Stations, found that 87 percent believed the government should provide reproductive health services to the poor.
The United Nations said early this year that the bill would help reduce an alarming number of pregnancy-related deaths, prevent life-threatening abortions and slow the spread of Aids. The UN Population Fund says 3.4 million pregnancies occur in the Philippines every year, half of which are unintended while a third are aborted, often in clandestine, unsafe and unsanitary procedures. It says 11 women die of pregnancy-related causes every day. Nearly 70% of women use no contraception at all.
Reproductive health programme are patchy and often unavailable to the poor. Some local governments have passed ordinances banning the sale of condoms and their distribution in health clinics.
"Many Filipino women have faced difficulties and sometimes death because of the absence of a comprehensive and consistent reproductive health policy. This law can change that," said Carlos Conde, Asia researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch.