A relentless Catholic Church campaign to derail a birth control law in the Philippines entered its final phase at the Supreme Court yesterday, with the verdict to have a monumental impact on millions of poor Filipinos.
The court began hearing arguments against a family planning law that Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, defying intense church pressure, helped steer through parliament late last year.
It is the last legal recourse for the church, which for more than a decade led resistance to birth control legislation in the mainly Catholic nation.
The church, which had threatened Aquino and other supporters of the law with excommunication, yesterday held prayer vigils, protests and masses near the Supreme Court.
“We ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten and inspire the lawyers who would be arguing for our position ... and enlighten the justices of the Supreme Court,” Bishop Gabriel Reyes said during a mass at a nearby church.
The law requires government health centers to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, benefiting tens of millions of the country’s poor who would not otherwise have access to them.
More than a quarter of the Philippines’ nearly 100 million people live on the equivalent of US$0.62 a day, according to government data.
The law also mandates that sex education be taught in schools and that public health workers receive family planning training, while post-abortion medical care was legalized.
Proponents say the reproductive health (RH) law will slow the country’s population growth, which is one of the fastest in the world, and reduce the number of mothers dying in childbirth.
“To deny RH services from our people would be a denial of human rights and a grave social injustice, especially against women and the poor,” said Senator Pia Cayetano, one of the architects of the law.
The Supreme Court suspended the law in March so that the judges could hear the 15 formal petitions from a range of church-backed groups arguing that it was unconstitutional.
The opponents argue it violates various elements of the constitution, including those on protecting the sanctity of the family and guaranteeing freedom of religion.
A crowd of about 400 opponents of the law gathered outside the Supreme Court as the judges began hearing the case, holding banners such as: “Obey God’s will, no to RH bill”.
Another read: “RH Bill is abortion.”
They stood on the other side of the road from a smaller crowd of supporters of the law, some of whom carried a banner that read: “Rights and welfare, not the beliefs of a few.”
Opinion surveys over many years have shown strong public support for birth control legislation.