Catholics clash over controversial RH bill

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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While Catholics converge at Edsa Shrine to condemn the Reproductive Health bill, other church members support the bill, citing Catholic teachings

AT STAKE. Catholics debate on the RH bill, with the lives of the poor at stake. Screen grab from the Newsbreak video, 'Julie Will Decide'

MANILA, Philippines – Led by bishops and priests, Catholics converge at the historic Edsa Shrine on Saturday, August 4, to protest the Reproductive Health (RH) bill that the House of Representatives will vote on 3 days later.

Participants arm themselves with Bible passages and Church teachings to condemn a bill that, according to them, will destroy the family, violate life, exploit the poor, and promote promiscuity among the youth.

But they do not compose the whole Catholic Church in the Philippines. On the other side of the fence, Catholic groups also invoke Church teachings – to support the RH bill.

One of these groups comes from the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University. While their school disowns their views, 14 Ateneo professors argue Catholics can support the RH bill in good conscience.

The professors first released this statement in 2008, and maintain their stance 4 years later as the House is set to vote on the controversial bill. On August 7, congressmen will decide whether to terminate interpellations or proceed to the period of amendments on the bill that has languished for over a year in Congress.

In their paper titled “Catholics Can Support the RH Bill in Good Conscience,” the Ateneo professors called for the passage of the bill, then House Bill 5043, which is now the consolidated House Bill 4244.

The professors, some of whom came from Ateneo’s theology department, said the bill’s provisions “adhere to core principles of Catholic social teaching,” such as preferential option for the poor and primacy of conscience.

They cited statistics that show the poorest Filipino women bear more children than they intend.

Based on government statistics, the poorest women have an average of 6 children – above their ideal number of up to 3 or 4. The richest women, on the other hand, usually meet their desired number of children – 3 on the average.

Poverty, conscience

RH bill advocates attribute this problem to the poor’s lack of access to contraceptives. “We are at this level of poverty wherein we still have a few million people living at that level, they cannot pay for their own contraceptives, unfortunately,” Senator Pia Cayetano said in an interview on Rappler’s Talk Thursday.

The Ateneo professors, thus, said the RH bill is needed in line with the Catholic Church’s preferential option for the poor.

In Catholic social teaching, this principle means God has a special concern for the poor and vulnerable, so Christians should express concern for them as well.

“Embracing the preferential option for the poor asks us to look at the world from the perspective of the poor, and create conditions for them to be heard, defended against injustices, and provided opportunities for their empowerment and attainment of the fullness of human life,” the professors explained.

They said Catholic bishops should therefore respect the conscience of those who, after discerning, decide to use contraceptives.

Catholic theology says a believer is obliged to factor in Church teachings, as well as the needs of a wider community, in deciding based on conscience. In the end, however, the Church teaches that such decisions are personal in nature, and may be shaped by circumstances like poverty.

“Catholic social teachings similarly recognize the primacy of the well-formed conscience over wooden compliance to directives from political and religious authorities,” the Ateneo professors said. “Is it not possible that these women and their spouses were obeying their well-informed and well-formed consciences when they opted to use an artificial contraceptive?”

(Read the 14 Ateneo professors’ full statement in the PDF below)

Government’s role

One of the statement’s authors, social anthropologist Mary Racelis, told Rappler the lack of access to contraceptives leads to more serious concerns, such as abortion.

“Half a million Filipinos opt for abortion, and that’s their family planning method. In their conscience, they cannot have another child that will be on the streets or unfed. And that’s their conscience… We think that’s terrible, but what choice do they have?” said Racelis, research scientist at the Institute of Philippine Culture based in Ateneo.

A former Unicef regional director in Africa, Racelis said this means the preferential option for the poor is left unexercised. “Therefore the State has the obligation to exercise that because of the right of all citizens to equal services,” she explained.

Marita Castro Guevara, another Ateneo professor who signed the pro-RH bill statement, clarified their group is not against natural family planning (NFP) “if that is what a couple, especially a woman, would like to use.”

The Catholic Church promotes NFP in line with Humanae Vitae, a papal document by the late Pope Paul VI that bans family planning methods that interfere with the body’s natural rhythms.

In this encyclical, Paul VI said married people may, for family planning, “take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile.”

Guevara, however, said NFP “is not for all women, not for all couples.”

PRO-RH. Ateneo professors Mary Racelis (left) and Marita Castro Guevara (right) explain the statement by 14 Ateneo professors supporting the RH bill. Photo by Paterno Esmaquel II

In an interview with Rappler, she cited instances when a woman, for example, has unpredictable periods, has a partner who forces her into sex, or has a husband who is a migrant worker and returns to the Philippines only periodically.

“For us, what is immoral about a married woman, a poor married woman, who already has 7 children, 8 children, 9 children who feels that her body and her financial circumstances will not be able to bear the burden of another child? So she should be able to have the means to choose the family planning method that will work for her,” Guevara said.

Not women’s problem

But what if Church leaders say such circumstances constitute sacrifice on the part of women, and therefore recommend abstinence when they cannot practice NFP?

Racelis said that’s not the problem of women anymore.

“You better tell that to the men, because they don’t believe that in this society. They want sex, they’re going to get it. So maybe the Church has to spend more time addressing men and their moral issues, instead of undermining the women who are trying to do what they can under real circumstances,” she said.

Other Catholic groups, such as the Catholics for Reproductive Health (C4RH), also express support for the RH bill. C4RH says there is “no dissonance” between being Catholic and supporting the RH bill.

Akbayan spokesperson Risa Hontiveros, a devout Catholic, also criticized Catholic bishops at a recent forum for lobbying against the RH bill. She also called on politicians not to fear the so-called but non-existent Catholic vote, especially as the bishops have associated themselves again with the anti-RH former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. (Watch more in the video below.)

Bishops divided, too

Without naming names, RH bill advocate Sylvia Estrada Claudio also hinted at divisions within the Catholic hierarchy over the RH bill.

Alam din po namin, hindi ho united ang mga bishop. Unfortunately, ‘yung mga ambisyoso, karerista, galit sa babae, at pasista na mga bishop, ‘yan po ang boses na nananaig,” she said in the same forum. (We also know that the bishops aren’t united on this. Unfortunately, the ones who are ambitious, women-haters, and fascists are the voices that prevail.)

Despite the raging debate among Catholics over the RH bill, however, Racelis said the buck doesn’t stop with their Church. She makes legislators accountable.

“Legally it’s very clear,” Racelis said. “The Church has a right to say what it’s saying, but we have a right to dispute it on the basis of evidence, and the legislators have a right to vote according to the needs of the citizenry as a whole, and not one religious group.”

Political parties, however, have so far refused to make a stand on the RH bill. President Benigno Aquino III has pushed for “responsible parenthood,” but Aquino’s use of this phrase has sparked opposing interpretations from pro- and anti-RH bill groups. – 

For more updates on the issue of the RH Bill, view our #RHBill Debate Microsite

Read on for other views on the RH Bill debate:

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email