Sunday, November 15, 2009

Overpopulation and the Catholic Church

Senator Noynoy Aquino leads in all the presidential polls that have been taken in the Philippines in the last month, receiving more preferential votes than all his opponents combined.

But before his supporters can start planning a yellow-themed celebration in May of 2010, there are still formidable obstacles standing in his way and they are not Manny Villar, Erap Estrada, or Gibo Teodoro.

The first obstacle is the P7.7-billion automated electronic voting machine system contract that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) awarded to Smartmatic, a company that allegedly has ties to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

There is a pervasive fear that automated voting machines can be easily rigged, with no paper trails to document abuses. The voting system source codes can be obtained from the company and manipulated to award votes to a particular candidate. The voters may be at the mercy of computer programmers.

The second obstacle is the Philippine Catholic Church, which issued a “veiled warning” to Senator Aquino indicating that the senator's support of the Reproductive Health (RH) bill could be detrimental to his presidential aspirations.

Other Church officials like Fr. Robert S. Embile have even threatened excommunication to anyone who endorses or supports the RH bill. In a letter published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on October 20, 2009, Fr. Embile wrote that “any believer who does not abide with the teachings 100 percent is not a genuine Catholic.”

In a visit to Cebu City on October 17, 2009, Senator Aquino reiterated his support for Senate Bill 3122 (The Reproductive Health and Population Development Bill) explaining that it can help provide the sex education that present and future generations need. It is an attempt “to come up with a defined national population policy framework.”

Senator Aquino said he supports the plan to have government health centers ready to let the public avail themselves of contraceptives and that parents should take responsibility for birth spacing. He told the Cebu press that if the Catholic Church will boycott him in the 2010 elections because of his support for the RH Bill, he said he would rather heed his conscience.

“I believe we have a population problem. I believe I have a responsibility to help so that our children have the opportunity to live better lives,” he said. He cited the fact that the Philippine population has “probably doubled” since the first Edsa revolution. Not quite but close.

The Philippine population in 1906 was 6 million people. By 1949 it had increased to 19.3 million; by 1970, the population passed the 38.5 million mark, and by 1989, it had risen to 63.8 million. It was 70 million in 1991, and since 50 percent of the people are under the age of 18, the projection is that the figure will pass 100 million shortly after the year 2010.

As environmentalists have pointed out, while the population has exploded, “the mangrove swamps are being destroyed, and 80 percent of the coral reefs, which are among the richest ecosystems on the planet, have been severely damaged. A third of the soil is severely damaged, two thirds are partly damaged, and the rain forest that once covered over 90 percent of the area will, it seems, soon be totally gone—only 10 percent survives now.”

The issue of Philippine overpopulation came to the fore recently with what blogger Dean Bocobo called the “sheer apocalyptic scale of the Ondoy-Pepeng diluvial calamity.”

As Dean pointed out in his blog, “Overpopulation created our overcrowded cities with their teeming slums and urban sprawl. Overpopulation filled full our waterways with our own garbage, that later submerged the neighborhoods of rich and poor alike. Overpopulation created the thousands of pockets of vulnerable millions that have suffered Ondoy and Pepeng.”

“Overpopulated societies foster poverty and unemployment, and the widespread lack of proper food and water, since whatever is available is being diminished by an ever growing denominator of millions more mouths to feed, clothe, and shelter. And rescue! Overpopulation magnifies the woeful inadequacy of the government to deliver emergency relief and long term reconstruction. Every reconstruction plan and every attempt to achieve a secure ‘preparedness’ against the next Ondoy or Pepeng is forced to deal with a population that is increasing at a rate of more than 2 million people per year.”

The controversy around the Reproductive Health bill attracted the attention of the New York Times which described the problem of poor Filipino women unwilling to have more children but helpless to stop it (“Bill to Increase Access to Contraception is Dividing Filipinos,” Carlos Conde, October 26, 2009). The bill would “require governments down to the local level to provide free or low-cost reproductive health services, including condoms, birth control pills, tubal ligations, and vasectomies. It would also mandate sex education in all schools, public and private, from fifth grade through high school.”

According to one research study cited by the New York Times, 54 percent of the 3.4 million pregnancies in the Philippines in 2008 were unintended with 92 percent resulting from not using birth control and the rest from birth control that failed. Those unintended pregnancies, the study found, contributed to an estimated 500,000 abortions that year, despite a ban on the procedure which is mostly performed clandestinely and in unsanitary conditions.

While the bill seeks to prevent unwanted pregnancies that results in a massive number of abortions, the opposition from the Catholic Church is based on the belief that the bill would legalize abortion by promoting the use of abortion-inducing drugs. In Catholic churches across the country, signs have been posted that read: “Yes to Life! No to RH Bill!”

The New York Times reported that various Catholic officials have been calling on opposition Senator Aquino to renounce his support of the RH bill but he has refused their pleas. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on the other hand, has said that she will let her Catholic faith guide her. Presumably, her anointed presidential candidate, Defense Secretary Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro, will toe the same religious line in his attempt to woo the Catholic Church.

The battle lines for the 2010 Philippine presidential elections have been drawn.

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