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Philippines: Priests wage losing battle against condom law

Catholic clerics have turned to their last legal resort to stop the Philippines’ reproductive health law making contraception more widely available.

BANGKOK, Thailand — They preach that birth control pills are akin to murder. They warn that condoms defy God’s will. And in Asia’s Catholic stronghold, the Philippines, priests hope to convince Supreme Court judges that a new law subsidizing contraception must be scrapped.

By most accounts, this is a losing fight. After a decade-plus battle, advocates of the Philippines’ hotly disputed “reproductive health” bill finally pushed it through congress in December.

Proponents contend that the law, which directs government funds toward cheap or free contraception, will spare Filipina women from having upwards of three children and dooming their families to poverty. Teenage pregnancy is rampant in the Philippines, where new government data shows births among girls aged 13-19 spiking 60 percent from 2000 to 2010. The nation’s growth rate — roughly 25 average yearly births per 1,000 citizens — is among the world’s highest outside Africa.

But influential Catholic priests contend that only the au naturel “rhythm method” is sanctioned by God. They have not stopped crusading against the law, and in March persuaded the Supreme Court to freeze all implementation of it until both sides had presented their arguments to the judges. 

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As the court began hearing the debate Tuesday, attorneys aligned to the Church’s cause argued that the law’s promotion of condoms and other contraceptives, including pills and implants, defied a constitutional right to life.

More from GlobalPost: Abortion cocktails and condom wars in the Philippines

“We want to trouble consciences and let every conscience listen to the voice of God,” Archbishop Socrates Villegas told an in-house news outlet promoting the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

Abortion, among the darkest taboos in the Philippines, is illegal. But Philippine priests, taking cues from the Vatican, often describe contraception methods considered pedestrian in other majority Christian nations with the same rhetoric American pro-life activists use to describe terminations.

A leading Filipino bishop, Gabriel Reyes, told GlobalPost last year that “the church has to stress that this (law) is murder” and that “the people in favor of this bill … are not good Catholics.” Almost every major Filipino group opposed to the law signed a statement last year alleging that the White House, which has funded contraception programs in the Philippines, “will continue to target countries like the Philippines to spread their culture of death.”

GlobalPost investigation also found cheap abortion cocktails, which can bring on 10-year prison terms, for sale outside one of Manila’s most revered churches.

Though the law has been approved for months, multiple legal challenges must be cleared away before its enactment.

A senator defending the law this week in the Supreme Court, Pia Cayetano, told Manila’s ABS-CBN news outlet that the delays amount to a “grave social injustice.” Each day the law is not in place, she claimed, 15 women die from pregnancy-related ailments that could be prevented through the services it should provide. 

More from GlobalPost: Catholic Church takes on reproductive rights in Philippines, risks further alienation