Philippines lawmakers Monday passed legislation, designed to reduce the country's high birth rate with government-funded contraception and introduce mandatory sex education in schools, despite strong opposition from the dominant Roman Catholic Church.
The newly approved Reproductive Health Bill requires the Department of Health to distribute "medically safe, legal, accessible, affordable and effective reproductive health care services nationwide," and mandates "age-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education" from the fifth grade through high school, with parental consent.
"Our legislature took an historic vote today for women and families as it successfully passed the Reproductive Health Bill. We thank our senators and congressmen who voted for access to information and care," presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda was quoted as saying by the CNN.
The legislation, locally known as the RH bill, passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 133 to 79, with 7 abstentions. The bill had earlier passed the Senate, 13 to 8.
The amendments introduced in the Senate require girls below 18 years seeking access to contraception to obtain written parental consent.
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A reconciliation committee will work out differences in the versions of the legislation passed by each house before it is sent to President Benigno Aquino III, who is expected to ratify it.
Aquino's bold move to endorse the long-languishing bill in August to take on the Catholic Church — which played a significant role in putting his late mother and democracy icon Corazon Aquino in power in 1986 — was met with threats from the Christian leaders who vowed to campaign against the lawmakers favoring the bill in next year's election.
In a nation, where 80 percent of 96 million residents are Catholic, passage of the bill was celebrated as well as condemned, with the Pro-Life Philippines Foundation calling it “ungodly.”
Gabriel Reyes, bishop of the diocese of Antiopolo and chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, said the passage of the bill marked "a sad day for the country,” CNN has reported.
According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report, the "unmet need" for family planning in the country, or the percentage of women who do not want to become pregnant but are not using contraception, grew from 15.7 percent in 2006 to 19.3 percent in 2011. The "unmet need" is the highest among poor women (25.8 percent), adolescent girls (37 percent), illiterate women (29.2 percent) and women in ARMM or the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (35.8 percent).
A U.N. report titled 'Fertility Decline in the Philippines' explains the reason behind the high birthrate in the Philippines: "A large majority of the Filipino population professes allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith. There is also a sizeable Muslim minority in the southern Philippines. A common explanation for the slow pace of fertility decline in the Philippines as compared to other Asian countries is the alleged pronatalism of these two religions."
"Our view is that religion does not exercise a strong direct influence on fertility desires, but that it is a major factor influencing population policy and programs. Church opposition to contraception has been a major factor in preventing the government - both national and local - from committing funds for population programs," the report states.
The Philippines has one of the highest birthrates among Asian nations with some 25 births per 1,000 people every year, which could double the population within three decades. For comparison, the rate in the U.S. is 13.7.
“By no means is this a perfect law, but after over a decade of lobbying by women’s organizations and medical professionals to enshrine the protection of women’s human right to sexual, reproductive and maternal healthcare, this is welcome development. The easier it is for women in Philippines to exercise their reproductive rights, the lower maternal and infant mortality will be,” Polly Truscott, deputy asia-pacific director of Amnesty International said in a statement, welcoming the legislation.