On the last Friday of July, church bells around the Philippines rang on the orders of the Catholic hierarchy.

Ringing those church bells was just one of the strategies of the Catholic church's promised “intensified advocacy” against the pending reproductive bill. The defensive stance of the Philippine Catholic church in the past several weeks was evident with its all out show of force denouncing the bill through tarpaulins hanging at the parishes' foyers; sermons on Sunday masses; press conferences; and most worryingly, threats against politicians supportive of reproductive health measures. As of this writing, it was reported that out of a hundred solons willing to support the reproductive health bill, the number is down to 48.

Last week, scores of women marched on the streets of Quezon City, supporting the reproductive bill being heard in Congress and denouncing the tactics of the Catholic church. Jointly organised by the country’s largest reproductive health and rights coalition, the Reproductive Health and Advocacy Network and the Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development Foundation, Inc., the women questioned whether taking contraceptives is indeed a sin or an act that saves lives.

Multiple Burdens includes the Burden of Guilt
Among these women was Sheila Conde, a youth organiser, who has been educating young women on family planning and reproductive health. Conde shared the stories of two friends who got pregnant at the early age of 14 and 16 years and who reached their 20s with at least three children. One of them died at 25 on her fourth pregnancy due to excessive bleeding and religious guilt. Despite doctors' advice to avail of intrauterine devise, Jackie stuck with the Church's teaching, that every child is a blessing.

“Hindi po buhay ninyo ang nalalagay sa panganib. Hanggat nakikialam kayo sa gobyerno, marami pang mamatay sa aming kabataang kababihan. [It is not your life that is placed in danger. As long as you meddle with the government, more will be killed among us young women,” Conde addresses. Recalling the Catholic grave pronouncements and actions in the past that killed philosophers and scientists, economics professor Ernesto Pernia asserts, “This is going to be a grave error that they are going to regret.”

Lately the Catholic church likewise affirmed that contraceptions remains out of the question even for married couples where one spouse is HIV positive, a point that alarms the LGBT community. Danton Remoto of the LGBT party-list group Ang Ladlad asserts that condoms protect gay couples to exercise their sexual choice and adds, “It is natural to have affection and devote energies to someone. Sex must not be limited to procreation. It is also for recreation, communication, levitation and others.”

On Fertile and Hungry Grounds
Pernia likewise clarified the correlation between poverty and population. “Poverty is caused by bad governance and weak economic growth. High fertility rate and rapid population growth exacerbate poverty,” he explains. Analysing the socio-economic profile of Thailand and the Philippines in the last 30 years, Thailand has reduced its population growth to .8 per cent with 63 million since 1970 while the Philippines' population soared to more than 80 million with a population growth of 3 per cent.

According to Pernia, this illustrates that had the country promoted comprehensive reproductive health as Thailand did, this would have translated to 22 per cent higher income, 23 per cent less poverty or five million less poor people. He added that there would have been more funds for education and agriculture, resulting to a surplus of basic commodities such as rice.

“Thailand has supported and devoted resources for family planning and there are no bishops there,” he remarks.

At the moment, a comparative study is taking place on Manila and Quezon City. The former banned all forms of contraceptives for more than five years and earned a class suit against affected women. Meanwhile Quezon City has just passed a historic ordinance for RH measures, including a P12 million (US$273,584) initial budget.

Unholy alliance of the Church and State
The controversy surrounding reproductive health is indeed a litmus test of political will in the face of the unholy alliance between the Catholic hierarchy and the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Joseph Juico, the principal author of the QC ordinance shares that as the proposed ordinance was being heard, priests threatened him the denial of communion during mass in parishes in the city. Now that the ordinance was approved, he is forced to scout for a church that could accommodate his planned wedding.

“You no longer have the vote,” a priest told him. The same message is apparently being sent to other solons both in the local government units and the national government. Only on his second term, Juico says, “It's ok [if I loose]. I might be a stronger advocate of reproductive health.”

Catholic church leaders including the influential religious group of El Shaddai, have professed that they will not deliver the votes for politicians who will be endorsing the bill. Eighty-five per cent of the population of the Philippines is Roman Catholics. El Shaddai, whose leader Mike Velarde is an adviser to the Arroyo government, accused the authors of reproductive health bills as promoting abortion and promiscuity. He says to the popular broadsheet, Philippine Daily Inquirer, “People’s choice must not be legislated. Even God gives man a free choice. But as far as child-bearing is concerned, God has already decreed that we must choose life instead of death. God has decreed that we must increase, not decrease, our numbers as a people.”

On the last Friday of July, church bells around the country rang to signify its battle to preserve morality. But for many women and men, it is a battle being waged against their bodies and sexuality. The bells sounded like a death knell, foretelling of a more intensifying struggle for their lives and freedom.

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