Free birth control for 6m women in the Philippines

Move aims to reduce poverty but puts govt on collision course with Catholic church

MANILA • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered government agencies to ensure free access to contraceptives for six million women who cannot obtain them, officials said.

The move is expected to put him on a collision course with the country's dominant Roman Catholic church.

"All women of reproductive age should be able to achieve their desired family size, their desired number of children, rather than having more children than they want or can afford and provide for adequately, and that is exactly the essence of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law," Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia said on Wednesday.

Mr Duterte signed the executive order on modern family planning on Monday. It said that out of the six million women with unmet needs for modern family planning, two million have been identified as poor.

The two million women should have access to contraceptives by next year, and the rest thereafter, the order stated.

It also directed government agencies to locate couples with unmet family planning needs, mobilise agencies up to the village level and partner civil society in intensifying the drive, reported Associated Press.

About 80 per cent of the Philippine population are Catholics, and the church opposes birth control and abortion.

The country's total fertility rate was three births per woman as of 2014, according to statistics compiled by the World Bank. But the poorest section of the population has a higher fertility rate of 5.2 births per woman.

Mr Pernia said the intensified drive to make contraceptives available and to ensure "zero unmet needs for family planning" is important to reduce poverty.

He added that the government aims to cut the poverty rate from 21.6 per cent in 2015 to 14 or 13 per cent by the end of Mr Duterte's term in 2022.

Dr Juan Antonio Perez, executive director of the Commission on Population, said the growth of the Philippine population may be reduced to 1.4 per cent from the current 1.7 per cent if the campaign is fully implemented by 2022.

In January last year, the Philippine legislature decided to eliminate funding for contraception in the government budget, reported Reuters.

The move was criticised by some legislators and advocacy groups who had pushed for the Reproductive Health Law that guaranteed funds to provide contraceptives to the poor.

The law, which was passed in 2012, was contested by pro-life groups, causing the Supreme Court to temporarily halt its implementation. In 2014, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2017, with the headline 'Free birth control for 6m women in the Philippines'. Print Edition | Subscribe