Connect to share and comment

Abortion cocktails and condom wars in the Philippines

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

or bad Catholics with respect to family planning? That attitude is very narrow minded. Its medieval.”

Babies at both breasts

Outside a different chapel in Manila, the baroque-style Malate Church, Josephine Gonzalez huddles by a creaky rickshaw with her infant son. At 35, the homeless mother of eight could pass for a ragtag 60. Her eyes are sunken, her limbs are skeletal and and tawny skin sags off her cheekbones.

The only clue to her true age is the baby sucking at her right breast. Revealing a gummy upper palate, Gonzalez says she’s milk fed kids until her teeth have fallen loose. (According to a Journal of Periodontology study, heavy breastfeeding can deplete calcium.) “Some years,” she said, “I’ve had one baby at each breast.”

Each night, Gonzalez, her husband and their seven children pile into a rickshaw they assembled from scrap pulled from a garbage dump. There is a bit more space now that her oldest, a 17-year-old son, is in prison on a stabbing charge.

About 30 other families also live illegally around the church, she said, and none have fewer than four or five kids. Many have eight or more. “Kids are a burden when they’re young,” Gonzalez said. “But once they’re big enough to beg, they’re a blessing.”

Gonzalez — broke, homeless and saddled with kids — sits squarely within the Reproductive Health Bill’s targeted demographic.

More from GlobalPost: Indonesia's birth-control pill for men

“In an ideal world, she’d only have three children,” Defensor-Santiago said. “Her husband could scrape up enough money to send them to public school. Filipino families are closely knit, so they could have banded together, in our tradition, so that at least the youngest could attend college. And maybe they could have a good lower-middle class life.”

“But as it stands,” Defensor-Santiago said, “she is condemned to poverty and the humiliation that comes with it.”

The average Filipina woman starts having sex at 21 and hopes to have roughly three kids, according to surveys conducted by the Philippines’ National Statistics Office. The poorest, however, typically end up birthing five or more. And one-fifth of married women, according to the survey, want to stop or slow down their birth cycle but never end up accessing contraception.

After her third child, Gonzalez said, she hoped for tubal ligation (getting her tubes tied) through a free government program. But the last two Manila mayors have vowed not to spend a single centavo — the lowest denomination of Philippine currency — on contraceptives or tubal ligation, which is also opposed by the Catholic Church.

“Yes, I have heard that these things are immoral from the church,” said Gonzalez, stroking her infant son’s wispy scalp. “So when I pray, I just ask for food for the kids and, if I’m really feeling hopeful, a home. But I’m not even sure this child will be my last.”

America's "culture of death"

Colonized by Spain and the US back to back, Philippine society is molded more by the Western world than any Asian neighbor. Europe offered Roman Catholicism, a faith observed by eight in 10 Filipinos. The US offered a taste for burger joints, Hollywood and American-accented English.

But Filipinos must not adopt its Western allies’ eroded sexual mores, Reyes said. “Before, abortion was illegal in the US, illegal in Europe ... but Holy Father [the pope] has said it: where contraception spreads, so does pro-abortion culture.”

Though the church opposes the existence of all contraceptives, Reyes said, it will not pressure Philippine politicians to ban them outright. However, bishops will not stand for a government that distributes condoms or birth control pills with public money.

“They should respect the church to which the majority of Filipinos belong,” Reyes said. “Muslims don’t eat pork. And the government doesn’t try to promote pork to our Muslims saying, ‘It’s for free! It’s for your health!’ This is the same thing.”

The priests are wary of America’s influence for a reason. Until recently, US taxpayers helped pay to flood the island nation with contraceptives. The federal US Agency for International Development (USAID) was the Philippines’ largest provider of condoms, birth control pills and injectable contraceptives until the White House, under President George W. Bush, phased out the program between 2003 and 2008. 

Filipina women felt the loss. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies global reproductive health, the percentage of Philippine women obtaining contraceptives from the public sector plummeted from a high of 67 percent in 2003 to just 46 percent in 2008. 

The Obama administration has not reversed the previous administration’s course. But that has hardly comforted the Filipinos who virulently oppose America’s foreign contraception funding. A September editorial signed by almost every major Filipino group opposed to the Reproductive Health Bill stated that, if Obama wins a second presidential term, he and his administration will “continue to target countries like the Philippines to spread their culture of death.”

More than a decade’s worth of feuding over the Reproductive Health Bill is pushing the Philippine Congress to finally decide the bill’s fate. President Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, threw in her lot with the bishops. But Aquino, a bill supporter, can bring the full influence of the president’s office to bear on politicians who insist on impeding the bill. Its future remains uncertain.

“It will be very soon now with all this pressure,” said Ernesto Herrera, a longtime Philippine lawmaker and supporter of the bill. “Abortion, yes, all of us should be against that. But it’s irresponsible for parents to continue producing if they’re dependent on children picking through the garbage.”