More Catholic than the Pope? Manila Suburb Cracks Down on Condoms

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If you live in Alabang and want to have safer sex, you’re going to need a doctor’s note. That’s because the wealthy Manila suburb has made prophylactics prescription-only. The local council says they wanted to discourage sex outside of marriage. They also wanted to stir debate about the morality birth control as the nation mulls its first-ever family planning bill. If that bill passes, the ordinance would be rendered null. For now, though, locals must heed the council’s dictum, or face the consequences: violators face up to six months in jail.

It’s not the first time this majority-Catholic country has cracked down on condoms. In 2008, I reported from Manila on an executive order that effectively banned birth control from city-funded clinics. The policy, implemented in 2000 by then-Mayor Lito Atienza, led to an increase in unwanted and unsafe pregnancies and further stigmatized family planning.

In many ways, the Alabang ordinance, like the Manila ban before it, has become a proxy for the country’s decades-old birth control battle:

Over the past few decades, most countries have embraced family planning and modern methods of contraception despite opposition from the church. The Philippines, however, has moved away from the mainstream on matters of reproductive rights, condemning condoms and prohibiting abortion under any circumstances. In the Philippines, the bishops and their allies in government have cast contraception as a violation of God’s will, an affront to national identity and a threat to public health.

And for the most part, it’s worked. Despite sustained grass-roots activism from antipoverty and women’s-rights groups, talk of contraception remains taboo, and efforts to pass “family planning” or “reproductive health” laws (even the terminology itself is contentious) have failed repeatedly. The national government won’t spend a cent on contraceptives, and though municipalities are technically allowed to buy them, many won’t. The middle class can buy birth control only privately; the poor simply go without. (via TIME)

Indeed, rather than encourage safer sex practices — like, say, condom use — the country’s Catholic hierarchy promotes what they call ‘natural’ family planning, wherein women are advised to abstain from sex on all but their least-fertile days. Birth control pills, condoms and even IUD’s are labeled ‘abortifacients,’ reproductive rights advocates denounced as “propagandists of a culture of death.” The result? High rates of maternal mortality, unplanned pregnancies and an epidemic of unsafe abortions.

The fate of Filipino family planning policy — and, indeed, the Alabang ordinance — now lies in the hands of the country’s politicians, particularly President Benigno Aquino III, or “Noynoy” as he’s widely known. During his election campaign, Noynoy promised to back the family planning bill and protect reproductive rights. Given country’s deep ambivalence on these issues, that won’t be easy. But as a practicing Catholic and the revered son of pro-democracy leaders Benigno Aquino Jr. and Corazon Aquino, he’s uniquely placed to stand up to the Bishops. Let’s hope he does.