Catholic Church Attacks Filipino Reproductive Rights, Risking Further Alienation

Catholic Church - Philippines
Protesters supporting the Reproductive Health Law in Manila, March 19, 2013. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

MANILA, Philippines -- Angered by a new law in the Philippines that would provide poor Filipinos easier birth control access, leaders of the Catholic Church threw their weight behind an effort to sway public sentiment just before the midterm elections on May 13 -- but they appear to have miscalculated their influence.

Clergymen hung black and red banners inside cathedrals around the country, asking faithful churchgoers to vote in legislative candidates opposed to the so called Reproductive Health Law. The clergymen view this law as the first step down the path to legalizing abortions. The candidates the Church endorses make up a group that certain priests and bishops call "Team Life," versus the "Team Death" moniker given to the candidates favoring by conservative Catholics. Many "Team Death" candidates still triumphed in the election. Speaking during the aftermath, city of Lipa archbishop Ramon Arguelles told reporters that he was "not happy."

While the Philippines is still one of the world's most devoutly Roman Catholic countries, experts on the matter say that church leaders' influence has been declining steadily in the country, as Filipinos increasingly disregard church doctrine.

Many Filipinos disagree with the Catholic Church's very conservative position on social issues. Some have also become disillusioned in the Church by the Vatican's agonizingly slow response to numerous sex abuse scandals plaguing Catholicism. Mirroring the so called "de churchification" process taking place in other Catholic dominated countries, a survey indicated just 37 percent of Catholics in the Philippines go to mass, versus 66 percent back in 1991.

The Catholic Church still remains among the most powerful institutions in the country. Of the Philippines' 100 million inhabitants, about 80 percent consider themselves to be Catholics. Politicians try to avoid crossing the Church and its teachings, which is why divorce and abortion are both still illegal.

The new Reproductive Health Law has the government providing free condoms as well as birth control medication and other methods of contraception to those who can't afford them. Public schools will also get sex education.

Public health officials have cheered the law as critically important to a country with more than a 25 percent of its population in poverty and with a very high rate of teen pregnancies.

The Catholic hierarchy has firmly opposed the new Reproductive Health Law, which was finally approved last December after two decades of similar proposals being defeated. The Supreme Court still suspended the law's implementation in March so that judges could hear arguments that the legislation is unconstitutional, mostly from Catholic groups which have filed petitions.

The Reproductive Health Law's passage also inspired the Church's campaign to support social conservatives in the legislative elections this month. Bacolod City bishop Vincente Navarra, originator of the idea for the "Team Life" and "Team Death" banners, said to AFP that access to birth control "will just snowball," leading to legislation for divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual marriage.

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