Monday, May 19, 2008

Birth Control

How will the Philippines survive soaring food prices? Through “birth control at home and friendly ties with the world’s top rice exporters”, according to Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in a press statement issued on May 10, 2008.

Birth control at home? Wow. This was a surprising admission from a president who has consistently rejected 840 million pesos in annual donations of contraceptives and other birth control devices from the US and other donor countries and who has yet to spend a centavo of the 180 million pesos allocated in the current budget for birth control.

But with the Philippine population increasing by two million mouths a year and with the price of rice and other food commodities skyrocketing, President Arroyo recognizes the general consensus in the Philippines that some form of population control or management (what she has called "birth spacing") has to be found for the country to survive this food crisis.

Unfortunately, population control programs in the Philippines have never taken off because of the fierce opposition of the Roman Catholic Church which believes that artificial contraceptives only serve to promote sexual promiscuity and immorality. Church leaders vehemently deny that overpopulation is the cause of poverty and underdevelopment.

Philippine Commentary blogger Dean Bocobo contends that while birth control policies are not “per se the cause of hunger, poverty and economic underdevelopment, their undeniable consequence in the form of overpopulation strictly limits the efficacy of any solutions to the problems that face Philippine society and vastly diminishes any gains that are achieved. Overpopulation has a structural, multiplier effect that exacerbates those problems, places pressure on natural resources such as water, land and the ability of society to feed, clothe, shelter and educate the people.”

Although the Catholic Church believes that sexual intercourse should only be engaged in by heterosexual married couples for the purpose of procreation and never for recreation, the Church does not oppose birth control. But the Church will only support the natural family planning (NFP) method of birth control.

NFP requires a woman to know when she is fertile and to refrain from sex during that period. A woman has to record her body temperature when she wakes up, measure the length of her menstrual cycle and her cervical secretions. For this Church-endorsed birth control method to work, both partners must religiously follow the recording process and avoid intercourse during the woman’s fertile period.

Do Catholic priests and nuns hand out thermometers, notebooks and pens to their poor parishioners to explain how the NFP method works and what faithful Catholic couples should do to prevent pregnancies?

NFP “is not an easy method to teach”, according to Jed Meline, deputy chief of the USAID’s Office of Population, Health and Nutrition, who points out that it takes incredible discipline for couples to control their sexual urges for as long as 11 straight days in a 23-day cycle. The keeping of daily records and the length of time to learn it effectively (three to six cycles) are not the only drawbacks. There is also the inability of NFP to protect partners against sexually transmitted diseases.

President Arroyo supports the NFP method for others but not for herself. In a luncheon held on February 28, 2003 with pro-family planning legislators to discuss their reproductive health bill, she disclosed that she herself had used contraceptives as a young mother. She said that when she went to confession after taking birth control pills, the father confessor told her “It’s okay”.

Her point, she explained, was that there are members of the clergy who see nothing wrong with using birth control pills or condoms. But, she told them, she could not support their bill as she was committed to advocate only for NFP. Why, the legislators wanted to ask, would you deprive women from having the same choices you had.

As one luncheon observer noted, Arroyo is hopelessly conflicted: “As an economist she knows that an exploding population puts undue stress on a weak economy, but as a Catholic whose rise to power was due in part to Church support, she is torn."

The result is that, unlike other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has no coordinated government family planning program and no public funds for artificial birth control. Many economists believe that this uncontrolled population growth has created a country with a big and permanent underclass, with 40 percent of the population subsisting on less than $1 a day. As the Philippine government’s own Population Commission (Popcom) warned, “Larger families among the poor make it more difficult for them to break out of poverty.”

Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources Lito Atienza, a devout Roman Catholic and head of Pro-Life Philippines, believes that a population boom will pave the way for prosperity, and birth rates will drop as a by-product of wealth. The last point is undoubtedly true as the poorest 20% of women have an average of 6-7 children while the top 20% average only 2 kids. But how overpopulation will lead to prosperity is highly questionable.

When he was mayor of Manila from 2000 to 2006, Atienza vigorously opposed any form of health campaign that promoted contraception (condoms, birth control pills), abortion, or sex education programs. Atienza does not believe in interfering with population growth, explaining that he has “not read a religious teaching that said man should meddle with the plan of the Divine Master.” But is it the Divine Master's plan for the poor to suffer?

It would perplex Atienza to learn that the Roman Catholic Church was very close to changing its moral position on sex and birth control when the Second Vatican Council was convened in the early 1960s to reexamine church teaching on this issue. Began by Pope John XXIII, and continued by his successor, Pope Paul VI, the Vatican created a Papal Commission on Population and Birth Control, composed of 15 cardinals and bishops and 64 lay experts representing a variety of disciplines.

After a two year exhaustive study, the Papal Commission voted decisively, 69 to 10, to change the Church’s anachronistic position on birth control. Unfortunately, the minority report was written by the Polish archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. When he became Pope, he adopted his own report and rejected any change in the Church’s position.

In his minority report, Archbishop Wojtyla warned that “if it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches in 1930… It should likewise have to be admitted that for half a century the Spirit failed to protect the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned.”

Face and Papal infallibility trumped all other considerations.

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