In Quezon City, supporters celebrate passage of the Reproductive Health… (Jay Directo / AFP/Getty…)
MANILA — Ignoring the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines' warning that "contraception corrupts the soul," the Philippine Congress on Monday passed a sweeping bill that would provide birth control to millions of poor women.
The historic votes, with bishops and nuns sitting glumly in the gallery, came after the Catholic hierarchy and its political supporters had thwarted the legislation's passage for more than 14 years.
The measure, which President Benigno Aquino III has pledged to sign, would override the de facto ban on contraceptives in Manila's public health clinics, make sex education mandatory in public schools and require hospitals to provide postabortion care, even though abortions will remain illegal.
Although more than 80% of Filipinos are Catholic, polls have shown the church was out of step with its followers on this issue: More than 70% of Filipinos supported the so-called Reproductive Health Bill in a nation where 39% of married women want to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraceptives.
"This signals thatrealand permanent change is afoot in the Philippines," said Jon O'Brien, the Washington-based president of Catholics for Choice. He said the Philippines, with 96 million people, has begun the same transition that occurred in his native Ireland and other developed nations, where church leaders have largely given up on trying to influence parishioners on birth control issues and politicians no longer "bend the knee" to the Catholic hierarchy.
Aquino last week certified the bill as urgent, indicating he wanted to sign it before the Christmas break. His support has inflamed the bishops' conference, whose leader once suggested that the president might be "excommunicated."
The superheated rhetoric continued Monday, with Archbishop Ramon Arguelles telling the Philippine Star newspaper that the president's endorsement would be worse than the gunman who killed 20 children in the Connecticut school shooting last week. "Our president intends to kill 20 million children with a fountain pen," Arguelles was quoted as saying.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda condemned such words as "unfair," "malicious" and "unbefitting" of the position of a bishop, who he suggested should instead be praying for the elementary school victims.
Access to birth control has become a particularly acrimonious issue in the Philippines, one of the fastest-growing nations in Asia with widespread poverty. Half of the pregnancies in the country are unintended and access to modern contraception is mostly limited to those who can afford it.
The Los Angeles Times in July ran a series, "Beyond 7 Billion," that chronicled the lives of poor women who struggled under a public health system that has either effectively banned pills, condoms and IUDs, or made them unaffordable.
Following Vatican dictates, the bishops oppose all such "artificial" measures to prevent pregnancy, equating them with abortion and saying they promote promiscuity. Instead, they sanction natural measures such as withdrawal or abstinence during a woman's fertile periods.
On Monday, each chamber of the Congress — the vote was133 to 79 in the House of Representatives and 13 to 8 in the Senate — approved its version of the bill that would make contraceptives accessible and affordable. Lawmakers must iron out minor differences in the two versions before sending the bill to Aquino for his signature.
"In the end, democracy won, our people won," said a statement issued by Aquino's Liberal Party.
Monday's votes came after months of intense floor debates, parliamentary maneuvering and efforts to kill the bill with amendments — all of which played out before packed observation galleries that included bishops and nuns. Opponents wore red while supporters wore purple and waved purple lilies. Eve Ensler, the feminist playwright of "The Vagina Monologues," was there to show her support.
One retired archbishop said the church may push for "civil disobedience" in the streets. Another bishop said the Supreme Court would overturn thelaw.
"The youth are being made to believe that sex before marriage is acceptable provided you know how to avoid pregnancy," wrote Archbishop Socrates Villegas, vice president of the bishops' conference, in a pastoral letter Sunday. "Is this moral? Those who corrupt the minds of children will invoke divine wrath on themselves."
Weiss reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Vanzi from Manila.