Birth control battle weighs on Philippine economy

MANILA Sun Aug 17, 2008 8:22pm EDT

1 of 6. A mother breastfeeds her newly born baby inside a ward in a government hospital in Manila August 14, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

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MANILA (Reuters) - Manila housewife Jasmin is well aware the bigger the family the bigger the potential poverty trap.

"I feel it most when we eat together because the food on the table is not enough," said the 33-year-old mother of six who had her fallopian tubes tied to avoid getting pregnant. "So, I decided to have ligation because life is hard."

Artificial birth control is often taboo in this staunchly Roman Catholic country. Yet with a birth rate that is one of the highest in the world, sustainable population growth is becoming a burning issue, especially as millions of poor people struggle to feed themselves at a time of high food prices.

This year's global food crisis, which saw prices of basic commodities such as rice soar beyond the reach of millions of poor people, created shock waves in the Philippines where over 40 percent of the population live on $2 or less a day.

Spooked by a precarious political and economic situation, some lawmakers are trying to pass a bill that will compel the central government to promote artificial family planning rather than solely focus on natural birth control methods supported by the Church.

Twenty-seven economists, including four former economic planning secretaries and one former budget secretary, have signed a paper supporting the bill.

"The lack of an unambiguous population policy reflects a lack of seriousness in promoting long-term economic growth and poverty reduction," said Ernesto Pernia, a professor of economics at the University of the Philippines, and one of the 27 signatories.

He compares the Philippines to Thailand.

In 1975 both countries had similar population sizes of 41 to 42 million. Then Bangkok launched a major family planning effort.

Now Thailand has a population of around 64 million and is the world's top exporter of rice. Meanwhile, the Philippines with a population of 90 million is the world's top importer of the grain.

Thailand had a gross annual income per capita of $7,880 in 2007, while in the Philippines it was $3,730.

"Our studies show that if the Philippines had followed the (population) growth trajectory of Thailand between 1975 and 2000 the per capita income would have been at least 22 percent higher and there would have been 5 million less poor people," said Pernia. "That is a conservative estimate."

Yet the proposed reproductive health bill will likely never see the light of day as the influential Catholic Church is staunchly opposed to artificial birth control as a violation of its religions tenets.

The Church has denounced the bill as "morally unacceptable" and warned politicians, particularly senators considering running for the presidency in 2010, that their stance will be remembered.

"The Catholic Church knows how to mobilize its members not to vote for anti-life politicians," said Father Melvin Castro of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines in a statement.

Priests at some Sunday masses gave PowerPoint presentations reiterating the Church's line on family planning and one archbishop even suggested denying communion to politicians who supported the law.

Nearly half of the estimated 3.1 million pregnancies that occur every year in this Southeast Asian country are unplanned. Around half a million end in illegal and often dangerous back-street abortions.

While a relatively small middle class in the Philippines can easily afford contraceptives, millions of poor women cannot. A month's supply of the pill costs 39 pesos or around $0.86, around half the average daily salary of almost half the population.

BACKLASH

A lack of accurate information and access is also a problem.

Local governments often do not have the money to provide pills and condoms in public clinics and mayors that prefer to toe the Church line can ban them from clinics.

Officials who defy the Church sometimes risk a backlash.

Joseph Juico, a councilor in Quezon City in Manila, was denounced for introducing a family planning program in schools

"Some priests and some lay ministers were calling me an abortionist. They were calling me a worker of Satan," Juico said.

Couples attending compulsory family planning seminars before their weddings are often warned off using artificial methods.

"One of the women leading our workshop told us the pill had given her varicose veins, diabetes and made her deaf in one ear," said one newlywed, who declined to be named.

Catholic clerics say natural family planning methods such as abstinence when the woman is ovulating are effective.

But in practice they are often unreliable and difficult to follow. Many couples in the Philippines only see each other once or twice a month because either the man or the woman has a live-in manual job elsewhere. It's even less if one of them works abroad.

Extra-marital affairs, rarely alluded to by priests in the Philippines, are common and men sometimes have second or third families.

A lack of artificial contraception means that many women literally burst into tears when their period is even one day late as the only recourse for an unplanned pregnancy is an illegal abortion or giving birth to another child they can ill afford to feed.

Without an effective birth control policy, the Philippines, already the world's 12th most populous country, is projected to have a population of over 140 million by 2040. This will put a huge strain on its creaking health system, schools and other services, and its ability to feed itself.

(Editing by Megan Goldin)

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