Sex and Religion

Finding Religion and Spirituality in Population, Gender, Sexuality, and Reproductive Health Advocacy in the Philippines.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Filipinos Test Catholic Clout; Family-Planning Policies Urged To Help Strengthen the Economy

For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has exerted its influence on the Philippines like it has in few other countries. That includes lobbying against the kind of family-planning policies that have slowed population growth elsewhere in recent decades.

But now, as rice and gasoline prices reach records and the world's population is expected to strain resources further as it swells to seven billion by 2012, population-control advocates are coming out in greater numbers here against what they see as the Vatican's efforts to hold back the country's economic potential. A number of prominent economists and big-name politicians are talking up the need for the Philippines to stop producing so many new mouths to feed on television talk shows and in the op-ed pages of the nation's newspapers. They often point out that it isn't unusual for people lining up outside churches and government offices for subsidized rice to have seven or eight children.

The Church is having none of it. Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, the spirited spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, argues that the reason the country is poor isn't because it is overpopulated but because corruption and sloppy economic planning have made it poor.

"And poorer countries produce more children," he says, especially mostly agricultural economies, where having more children means more hands to till the soil and a better chance of family support in old age.

Growing populations can help create markets, build industries and add to a country's economic output, as long as the right policies are in place to allow that growth spurt to take place. Japan, for instance, supports about 130 million on a similar-sized land mass to the Philippines, which is home to 90 million people, most of whom are still supported by a fragile, agricultural economy.

In many ways, rapid population growth is a sort of multiplier of bad economic policy. World Bank adviser Thomas Merrick wrote in an influential paper in 2002 that "while misguided agricultural and trade policies and poor food distributions may be the key determinants of hunger, rapid population growth exacerbates bad policies, while slower growth may buy time for good ones to have an effect."

And in the Philippines, policy -- especially its failure to root out corruption and create an efficient agricultural sector -- has been bad.

The islands are a zesty blend of Spanish, Asian and American influences, 90% Catholic, and, while growing briskly in recent years, have lagged behind the so-called Asian tiger economies for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, as its neighbors in Southeast Asia were enjoying an influx of foreign investment and other predominantly Catholic countries in South America grew more socially liberal, the Philippines labored under the economically debilitating dictatorship of late President Ferdinand Marcos. The country is still paying off the debts he took out in its name.

When the Marcos era finally came to an end with the "People Power" revolution of 1986, the Church played a pivotal role in bringing people out onto the streets to support a military coup against the Marcos regime. Ever since, progressive democrats in the Philippines have found themselves in an occasionally uneasy alliance with the Catholic Church while an agrarian reform program was left in large part uncompleted. The two sides joined forces again in 2001 to overthrow President Joseph Estrada, a scandal-tainted former movie star, replacing him with the devoutly Catholic Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Since then, the number of Filipinos has swelled to 90 million from 77 million -- with around 40% of them living on about $2 a day, a higher proportion than when Ms. Arroyo came into office. This baby boom is deepening the country's dependence on expensive, imported rice and entrenches the Philippines as the world's biggest importer of the grain, which has tripled in price since January.

Many family-planning proponents say the Philippines should learn from neighbors such as Thailand, China and Indonesia, where family-planning policies were adopted as a means of relieving poverty exacerbated by over-population. In Indonesia's case, Muslim social-welfare organizations pushed the health benefits of women having fewer children as a compelling reason to adopt a national family planning policy. China still enforces a one-child policy, even though its average population will begin to age after 2010, according to studies conducted by Robert Eastwood and Michael Lipton at the University of Sussex in England.

Elsewhere, Catholic countries in Europe and South America have become more liberal among a grass-roots demand for more family-planning options.

Filipino family-planning advocates have existed for years on the fringes of society. They include a small number of doctors, such as Jondi Flavier, who volunteer their services to a low-budget campaign to provide free vasectomies. Not many do. Many Filipino men fear the procedure will reduce their sex drive, while their wives worry that it will enable their husbands to sleep around with less risk of getting caught. Last year, 4,000 men signed up, some of whom said they couldn't afford condoms or birth-control pills, even if they could find them.

Now other, more prominent forces are talking up the benefits of planning a family instead of just letting it happen.

One convert is Mr. Estrada -- the 71-year-old former president ousted in 2001's Church-backed military coup. Recently pardoned after being convicted and jailed on corruption charges, the wily former film actor is traveling around the Philippines with his Elvis-style hair-do and jet-black pencil mustache encouraging people to use condoms. Mr. Estrada himself fathered at least 11 children by three women.

His successor, Ms. Arroyo, while a frequent visitor to the Vatican, says she is also sympathetic to the argument that the government should do more to provide adequate family-planning information. In an interview, she says that while her government is keen to give people the opportunity to plan the size of their families more effectively, it should be done in a way that doesn't trample on the Philippines' Catholic sensibilities. "It's a better argument to an ordinary Filipino family than saying if you have too many children our economic growth rates will go down," she says.

Ms. Arroyo says her cautious approach has achieved some results. Although the Philippines' population is now growing at 2.04% a year, that is down from 2.64% when she took office in 2001. Economists such as Mr. Eastwood at the University of Sussex say that this gradual decline enables parents to devote more resources to educating their children, instead of feeding them -- a useful phenomenon in a country that takes pride in training millions of people to work overseas.

Adds Ernesto Pernia, an economics professor at the University of the Philippines: "It is time for the Philippines' Catholic Church hierarchy to be more understanding and tolerant, as in other Catholic countries, so that the government is not impeded from providing strong family planning advice."

Source: The Wall Street Journal, Friday, June 20, 2008


Blogger rmacapobre said...

it is time to make a stand.

give the people the right to decide for themselves how they want to plan their families.

12:21 AM  

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