By Luis Granados
To hear the Catholic bishops talk, you’d think today’s hot-button issue of contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans is one of “religious liberty,” where the government is denying Catholics the opportunity to practice their religion as they see fit. It’s all a question of personal freedom, they say. Of course they are not trying to take away anyone’s choices; they’re simply trying to preserve the choice for themselves to have private health insurance programs that do not offer the particular benefit of contraceptive coverage.
This is a smokescreen. The truth is that the Church would prefer to have the law ban all forms of contraception, for everyone. They know they can’t get that in 21st century America, so they try to come as close as they can, nibbling away at the edges to stamp out all the contraception they can while hoping the pendulum eventually swings back their way.
Proof of this lies across the water, in the Philippines, where the hot issue right now is the umpteenth effort to pass what is known as the “Reproductive Health” bill, which is strongly pushed by the Filipino Freethinkers organization. Yesterday, 10,000 Catholics marched in the rain against passage of a law that the Philippines’ bishops call “a major attack on authentic human values … that all of us have cherished since time immemorial.” Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon even encourages some unspecified form of "civil disobedience" if the bill passes.
Contraception is already legal in the Philippines, but so many Filipinos are dirt-poor that millions cannot afford it. About a third of the country’s 94 million people live on $1 a day, and a packet of condoms would cost almost as much as the weekly food bill for many. Why so poor? Well, in large part because of overpopulation in a country with one of the highest birthrates in Asia, which in turn is caused by the lack of contraception, in a classic positive feedback loop. In fact, 10% of the Philippine population has simply abandoned the country, to try to find a decent life somewhere else. The Reproductive Health bill would make contraceptives freely available to all in the Philippines, just as the U.S. Medicaid program makes contraception available to women who qualify for it in this country. The bill doesn’t require anyone to use contraceptives, it doesn’t suggest any limit on family sizes, and it doesn’t authorize abortion, which is prohibited by the Philippine constitution. It simply gives poor women a realistic choice, a chance to let their own consciences be their guides. Since 44% of pregnancies are unwanted among the Philippines’ poorest classes, this is a choice many of them would evidently like to have. Moreover, about 90,000 Filipinas suffer from illegal abortion complications each year, and an estimated 1,000 of them die; among those who carry their pregnancies to term, the childbirth mortality rate is quadruple the Millennium Development Goals rate.
A church that truly believed in “freedom of conscience” would be all for giving people choices. A church that wanted contraception to be illegal for everyone, period, would be against it. A church not bashful about employing the most blatant hypocrisy to get its way would say it’s for “freedom of conscience” in one country, while conniving against freedom of conscience in another.
Philippine congressman Manny Pacquiao, better known as the best boxer in the world and by far the most famous person in the country, pulls no punches. He simply points out that “God said go forth and multiply. He did not say go and have just one or two children.” This mirrors the official church catechism position that “Sacred Scripture and the Church’s traditional practice see in large families a sign of God’s blessing.” Interestingly, Pacquiao’s wife admits that she actually uses contraceptive pills herself; but rules God experts impose on others often don’t apply to themselves. I guess when you’re married to the world’s greatest fighter, it’s a little tough to say “No” when he’s ready to rumble.
Until 2008, contraceptives were provided to poor Filipinas by a U.S. AID program, but the Bush administration caved in to Catholic pressure and phased that out. I don’t know whether it’s budgetary considerations or continued deference to God experts that has prevented the Obama administration from resurrecting the program, but this is really something the Philippines ought to be doing for itself anyway; we’re a little short of cash these days.
The Philippine church has its own interesting approach to the birthrate issue. Couples should simply abstain from sexual relations altogether during Lent, which comprises 40/365 or about 11% of the year. That’s what Archbishop Paciano Aniceto of Pampanga, chairman of the Philippine bishops’ commission on family and life, recommends. After all, he says, “It’s in the Bible that the Jewish priest cannot officiate in the Holy of Holies unless he abstains from conjugal act with the wife.”
The bishops’ objection to the Reproductive Health bill is not limited to its contraceptive choice aspect. They also hate the fact that it provides for comprehensive sex education in Philippine schools. “Sex is not a game that should be taught to children,” harrumphs Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales. A little education might be useful in a country where 22% of married women of reproductive age want to avoid pregnancy but are still not using any family planning method.
Since the argument against freedom of choice for contraception is tough for the church to make, it is creating red herrings to attack. One senator has darkly announced his discovery of a “plot of a foreign group to smuggle abortion into the bill,” even though the bill doesn’t include abortion, never has, and cannot do so under the Philippine constitution. In fact, the bill actually increases the penalties for already-illegal abortion. Disregarding the old-fashioned preference for some semblance of factuality in argument makes the church’s task much easier; Archbishop Cruz warns that artificial contraceptives are “designed to ruin health.” Although the Philippines’ AIDS infection rate doubled when the US condom program wound down, the bishops claim that condoms are ineffective in preventing AIDS, in the face of incontrovertible WHO evidence to the contrary.
Opponents of the bill argue that overpopulation is not the Philippines’ main problem, corruption is. Maybe so. It’s interesting, though, that the political leader of the anti-contraception forces is former president Gloria Arroyo, who recently emerged from imprisonment for, um, corruption. The current president, Benigno Aquino, has become a strong supporter of the bill, despite the fact that the church threatens to excommunicate him if it passes. (If America were to elect a Catholic president who continued to run a Medicaid system that offers the same contraception choices that the Philippine bill would offer, would he or she be excommunicated as well? Since Medicaid is as much a state as a federal program, how about a Catholic governor?)
Here’s an argument being test-marketed in the Philippines that you can expect to start hearing in America: many common forms of contraception actually are abortion, so a legal ban on abortion means a legal ban on at least these forms of contraception as well. IUD’s, for example. These don’t prevent the sperm from fertilizing the egg, they prevent the fertilized egg from implanting itself. In other words, they murder little human beings. The same thing can happen with the contraceptive pill; sometimes it prevents fertilization, but other times it kills off a newly fertilized egg, which is why the “Plan B” post-sex pill is really just a higher dosage of the regular pill. How to tell the difference? Well, you can’t. And when you’re dealing with human life, better safe than sorry, right? So when President Romney replaces Justice Ginsburg with the fifth vote against Roe v. Wade and states start re-enforcing existing criminal abortion laws, expect some challenges to these forms of contraception as well, with today's "freedom of conscience" rhetoric quietly shelved.