The Philippines has the fourth-most Catholics of any country in the world — almost as many as the US despite having a total population less than one-third as large — with more than 80 percent of the country identifying as Catholic. And a bunch of them want more access to birth control.
That's why supporters were celebrating in the streets yesterday when the Supreme Court upheld a law that allows the government to provide free condoms and contraception to Filipinos through state-run health centers. The law also provides for medical care for women who have had illegal abortions, and requires government-sanctioned sex education for adults, high-school students, and middle-school students.
The Catholic Church was somewhat less enthused by the Court's decision. The Church, along with smaller religious groups, had been fighting passage of the Reproductive Health (RH) Law for a decade before President Benigno Aquino III (himself a Catholic) signed it in December 2012. He did so, in part, to curb the country's explosive population growth of more than 2 percent annually. Shortly after it was passed, however, RH was put on a “temporary restraining order” while the Church challenged its constitutionality in court and even lead street protests against it. Nevertheless, 72 percent of the country still supported the law.
Former Senator Francisco Tatad, one of RH's loudest opponents, warned that the Court's decision will lead Catholics to continue the fight, and somewhat strangely added that making sure poor people don't have access to free condoms is the sole noble cause Catholics have. “This means civil disobedience at the very least,” he said. “Some of us will want to defy the power of the devil and die as martyrs, if need be, in the only cause that gives us a chance to fight for something bigger than ourselves.”
The government contends the law will help give the poor access to family planning resources; the Philippines has the highest birth rate in Asia east of Afghanistan. Officials also hope the law will have the secondary benefit of lowering the country's high maternal mortality rates, which are eight-and-a-half times greater than they are in the United States.
“This monumental decision upholds the separation of church and state, and affirms the supremacy of government in secular concerns like health and socio-economic development,” said Edcel Lagman, a human rights lawyer and principal author of the law.
That said, the Philippines is one of only two countries in the world where divorce remains illegal. The other is Vatican City.