Monday, August 27, 2007

Sex, lies and the Catholic Church


By Patricia Evangelista - Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines -- There was an old woman of great virtue, she had 26 children and didn’t know what to do. She dressed them and schooled them and fed them their bread, bellowed at them soundly and put them to bed.

In a newspaper article, Christine Herrera reported that Gloria Junio first gave birth at 15 and popped out a bouncing Junio baby little more than once a year. She was, between births, pregnant for the majority of 20 years, alongside some of her daughters. Three children died young, one child after falling off the dinner table. She has forgotten some names, is uncertain who is still living, and now has a grand total of 96 known grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This year, the country’s population hit the astounding total of 88 million, and is expected to reach 94 million in 2010. Gloria Junio’s story is just one of many. Population estimates from the Philippine Minimum National Social Data show that this country’s population is a population of young people. With an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, the ballooning birthrate renders null any of the much-trumpeted economic gains claimed by the government. The need to address the issue of overpopulation seems ridiculously obvious.

Just recently, in Olongapo City, councilor John Carlos de los Reyes was disturbed by the Reproductive Health Code’s policy statement, a portion of which reads that “Unmet family planning needs due to shortage of supplies may contribute to the looming surge in the city’s population in the near future.” He claims that “We are poor not because we are many, but because only a few wittingly or unwittingly deprive our kababayan of opportunities to prosper,” as if a few million more mouths to feed will make it easier to spread around “opportunities to prosper.”

In 2003, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines successfully blocked legislation that would have authorized the use of national funds for condoms and other contraceptive supplies. In 2006, the government backed off from its trial run of a sex education program in two areas of Metro Manila. The bishops objected that the introduction of sex education into public schools would encourage teenagers to try premarital sex rather than remain abstinent.

The argument is interesting. A teenager’s choice to have sex is not made because a teacher dangles a condom in front of students and runs down the colorful menu of possible sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Blame it on raging hormones, on television, on the alignment of the stars, or simply on choice. At the risk of excommunication, it has to be said: People do have sex before marriage, and have done so long before MTV and the World Wide Web. They will continue to do so long after this generation goes geriatric. To preach abstinence in a vacuum is not only ineffective, it is irresponsible.

The 2003 National and Demographic and Health Survey shows that the problem revolves around lack of information and access to family planning services. Sex education is not sexy; when done correctly, it is clinical, scientific and brutally honest. It explains what can happen after the wham, bam, and thank you ma’am, and what to do to prevent repercussions if the choice is to be made. Sources also say that nurses in government health clinics in Manila teach that condoms have holes in them, a myth that has also been articulated by Vatican spokesmen.

It would be wonderful if all conversations about birds and bees and what happens when watering pots meet flowers can happen between parents and children. That is rarely the case in a country where most of the parents, themselves poor and without access to correct sex education, cannot reliably transmit information. Information about sex comes from whispered conversations between friends, and it is easier to say yes to the boy who promises eternal love if there is no mention of STDs or condoms. Even with media taking up the responsibility of educating the public, the average Pinoy teenager cannot afford to buy condoms, much less the latest issue of Cosmopolitan.

Studies conducted by the UP Population Institute and the Alan Guttmacher Institute states that 473,400 cases of induced abortion were recorded in 2000. The Department of Health has put complications related to abortion as the fourth leading cause of maternal deaths in the country. Ninety-one percent of the recorded cases are of married women, and it is reasonable to assume that there are thousands more cases of young girls who bleed in dark rooms because of fear and ignorance, and more cases of fetuses found in the college toilets. Perhaps with better education programs, and greater access to contraception, none of these would have been necessary.

A bill (introduced in the 13th Congress) “providing for reproductive health care structures and appropriating funds” still sits in the back burner. According to Rep. Fergenel Biron of the fourth district of Iloilo, many of the representatives who initially supported the bill pulled out in fear of a Catholic backlash.

There are several concessions that must be made by a modern democratic country. Foremost is the right of an individual to choices he believes are beneficial to himself. It is that right that protects a leftist from being tortured because of his ideology, the same right that enshrines the value of the ballot box, and the same right that permits the publication of this column today. For the Catholic Church to claim it is immoral for a gay man to copulate with another is fair, but when the government tosses a homosexual man into jail because of that claim is to violate the principle of pluralism by which the government stands. The same goes for a man’s, or, in most cases, a woman’s, sovereignty over her body—it is her temple, not the Church’s.

That the Church continues to campaign against contraception should not be held against the priests, it is their right. It is the government that must take responsibility for allowing that Catholic lobby to decide against the welfare of the people. At the moment, the DOH has put reproductive health and population issues at “low priority,” while a P180-million budget for artificial family planning is still being delayed.

The saying goes that in a democracy, the voice of the people is the voice of God. Vox Populi, Vox Dei. According to a United Nations survey, in the Philippines, two out of five women who want to use contraceptives don’t have access. The 2006 Family Planning Survey reveals that the unmet needs for contraception remain high, with one in six women wanting but not able to practice family planning. The 2003 National Demographic and Health Survey shows that the problem of overpopulation revolves around lack of information and access to family planning services.

In a situation where the voice from above clashes against the voice of the people, even God has to learn how to compromise.

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