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Abortion cocktails and condom wars in the Philippines

Catholicism’s last Asian stand against America’s “culture of death.”

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An illegal abortion cocktail known in the Philippines as "pampa regla" purchased on the black market outside one of Manila's most exalted churches, the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene. Vendors promise the concoction can cause even a 1-month-old human embryo to bleed out with menstruation. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

MANILA, Philippines — In the shadow of Manila’s most exalted church, a bazaar offers wares considered most unholy: abortion cocktails going for $3.60 a pop.

Most who flock to this church, the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene, come to kneel before a wooden Christ figurine. Having survived a fire outbreak aboard a 17th-century galleon ship, according to legend, the flame-blackened statue is believed to impart miracles upon the faithful.

But others come to place their faith in “pampa regla,” illegal concoctions promised to terminate pregnancies. Sold secretly outside church gates, where government signage warns its vendors of 10-year prison sentences, the concoctions are traded alongside candles and charms.

“Just do as the note says,” said a female vendor who warily handed over a plastic baggie. Its contents: one bottle filled with liquid resembling grape Kool-Aid, six pills packed with minced herbs and instructions to swallow the brew with three pills per day. Vendors claim the recipe will cause even a month-old human embryo to bleed out with menstruation.

If approved for sale in the West, such a concoction might be called an “emergency contraceptive” if consumed the day after sex. In the Philippines, Roman Catholicism’s only major stronghold in Asia, priests broadly consider it to be a tool of murder. And in the eyes of many Filipino holy men, so too are the birth control pills considered unremarkable across much of the developed world.

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Across Asia’s ascendent economies, the birth control business is booming. Pharmaceutical giant Bayer Schering has signaled that large Asian nations are among its “key growth areas.” But in the Philippines, where Vatican-appointed archbishops wield incredible power, birth control is a complex issue tangled in spirituality, politics and fears of American meddling.

Today, the state’s role in providing birth control and preventing abortion has become the nation’s most divisive issue by far. The debate has cleaved priests and pro-contraception politicians into bitterly feuding camps. Both condemn the underground trade in abortion cocktails. But the forces that compel desperate women to consume these illicit pills are hotly disputed.

A political movement, backed by Philippines President Benigno Aquino III, warns that the nation will never prosper so long as the poor entrench their poverty with huge families. Free or cheap birth control, proponents argue, could stifle a population boom among society’s neediest. A dearth of affordable contraceptives, they say, pushes women to their last-resort: street abortion methods such as “pampa regla” that can wreck their internal organs.

Their plan of action, a “Reproductive Health Bill” now debated in congress, would mandate sex-ed classes in public schools along with tax-subsidized distribution of condoms, contraceptive injections and birth control pills for the poor. Its goal of curbing the nation’s fast-rising population of 95 million is supported by the United States and the World Health Organization. (The Philippines’ growth rate — now 25 average yearly births per 1,000 people — is among the world’s highest outside Africa.)

But the nation’s Catholic bishops call this internationally backed movement a declaration of “open war.” They portend a darker threat than overpopulation: spiritual ruin.

“The church has to stress that this is murder,” said Gabriel Reyes, a 71-year-old bishop assigned to study family planning by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. “The people in favor of the bill, they are wrong. And in that sense, no, they are not good Catholics.”

According to Reyes, there is only one righteous approach to birth control: the so-called “rhythm method,” in which men abstain from sex during the 10 to 12 day window in which their female partner is ovulating. 

“We must have self control,” he said. “I know it’s difficult but it’s doable with the grace of God. I’ve not done it for 71 years. With the grace of God!”

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But denigrating the piety of the contraception bill’s supporters will not shake their resolve, said Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a veteran lawmaker who is aggressively promoting its passage. Ignoring an explosion of babies born into poverty, she said, will have “grave consequences” for the Philippines.

“They are promoting fear, for ignorance will always ignite fear,” Defensor-Santiago said. “This is hilarious ... how can they say there are good