Manila's Aquino crosses one hurdle in pushing contraceptive bill

MANILA Mon Aug 6, 2012 7:21am EDT

Philippine President Benigno Aquino gestures as he delivers his speech during his third State of the Nation Address at the House of Representatives in Quezon City, Metro Manila July 23, 2012. REUTERS/Cheryl Ravelo

Philippine President Benigno Aquino gestures as he delivers his speech during his third State of the Nation Address at the House of Representatives in Quezon City, Metro Manila July 23, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo

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MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Monday successfully threw his weight behind a health bill promoting state-funded contraception, stepping out of his mother's shadow as he pushes reforms widely opposed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Aquino's late mother, Corazon, a pillar of democracy in the Philippines, was put in power in 1986 in a popular revolt strongly supported by the Church.

The Philippines, with a rapidly growing population of around 95 million, is the only predominantly Catholic country in the region apart from East Timor.

Benigno Aquino addressed a multi-party group of at least 180 lawmakers at the presidential palace, saying debates that have delayed the reform over the last 17 months needed to end.

Lawmakers agreed and said they would move on to discussing content.

"This is not a morality issue, this is a social issue that is closer to the hearts of most ordinary Filipinos," Earl Parreno of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms, told Reuters.

"I don't see any risk for the president. I think this will even push his popularity higher."

Discussions will centre on four issues -- state funding for contraceptives, mandatory sex education in schools, abortion, and the distribution of contraceptives that could induce abortions.

The bill, as it stands, requires governments down to the village level to provide free or low-cost reproductive health services. The law will not promote abortion, which is illegal.

In his state of the nation address last month, Aquino stressed his government could not end decades of shortages in accommodation and books in schools without responsible parenthood.

That statement was Aquino's strongest message yet on controlling population growth estimated at around 2 percent annually, part of his poll campaign program in 2010.

Aquino's allies in the lower house of Congress assured him of the passage of the bill within the month. Analysts say Aquino also has enough allies in the upper house to push the bill through.

Opponents of the bill, led by the bishops, warned they would campaign against the re-election in 2013 of lawmakers who supported it.

On Saturday, at least 7,000 people braved monsoon rains to attend a rally organized by the bishops, but the crowds were much smaller than church leaders' earlier estimate of 50,000.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Nick Macfie)

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