The Philippines has long been known as the Catholic Church’s Asian stronghold, but a new birth control law highlights an increasingly liberal shift that could next see divorce legalized, activists and religious leaders say.
A 15-year battle by the church to thwart state-sanctioned family planning ended last month when the Philippine Supreme Court approved the law, allowing the government to begin distributing free contraceptives to millions of poor Filipinos.
It was a rare loss for the church, which has for centuries been one of the nation’s most powerful institutions and continues to count more than 80 percent of the nation’s 100 million people as Catholics.
The church helped lead revolutions that toppled two Philippine presidents in recent decades and has been a constant voice in the nation’s modern political discourse, placing pressure on legislators to adopt conservative social policies. The Philippines is the only country where divorce remains illegal, while abortion is also outlawed and marriage is strictly defined as a union between a man and a woman.
Advocates say the introduction of the birth control law, accompanied by widespread community support, shows that Filipinos are increasingly ignoring the conservative teachings of the Church, while maintaining their faith.
“The Filipino Catholic mindset is evolving,” Elizabeth Angsioco, a leading feminist who helped galvanize support for the birth control law, told reporters. “The Catholic hierarchy is trying its best to keep their claim that the Philippines is the bastion of the faith in Asia. However, I feel that such a position is no longer as popular or widely accepted as it used to be.”
Many modern Filipino Catholics have already embraced customs that were once considered taboo and are still illegal or frowned upon by the church.
There are 500,000 abortions each year in clandestine clinics, according to the government, many of them by poor women or teenage girls who say that they cannot afford to bring up another child.
Contraceptives have also for many years been in high demand in poor communities.
In slums across Manila, reproductive health centers run by charity groups have long struggled to meet the demand for contraceptives and family planning lessons.
Filipino Catholics have also showed that they do not want to accept the church’s insistence that the “sanctity of family life” must be preserved or, in other words, to remain in an unhappy marriage.
Legal separations, which settle property and assets issues without legally dissolving a union, are common.
Estranged partners can also have their marriages annulled, although this requires a lengthy and expensive court process that is not always successful, so typically only the rich decide to try that option.
Following the birth control decision, a broad coalition of women’s groups are now looking to build momentum for a law that would legalize divorce.
A women’s rights party had already introduced a bill into the Philippine Congress in 2010 seeking to lift the ban on divorce.
The bill has not progressed beyond committee hearings.
Its proponents say they will now seek to revive debates in congress, and at least one female senator has said she will work to craft a counterpart bill in the Philippine upper chamber.
“The public conversation on divorce must now begin,” said Risa Hontiveros, a former legislator who is part of the pro-divorce lobbying network. “The Philippines being the last country in the world where divorce is illegal is a sign of immaturity.”