Nuns and priests in Manila have led a rally of around 10,000 Catholics in protest against a proposed birth control bill that would provide free contraceptives and introduce reproductive health and sexuality classes in schools.
The protesters, many dressed in red, gathered at a Catholic shrine to voice opposition to the bill, which would also encourage families to have only two children in an effort to reduce poverty.
In a statement read to the rally, Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Pangasinan province said contraceptives corrupt moral values and promote the view that “babies are a nuisance”.
President Benigno Aquino has strongly backed the birth control bill, saying that in a situation where couples “are in no position to make an informed judgement, the state has the responsibility to so provide”.
The United Nations Population Fund has also weighed into the debate. It warned that failure to pass the legislation could reverse gains in development goals.
The law would use a government health insurance fund to provide free birth control pills, condoms and other contraceptives. Lessons on family planning and sex education would become compulsory in schools and for couples applying for a marriage licence.
Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila called for lawmakers to reject the birth control bill because it “is not the solution to our many problems as individuals and as a country as it will even give rise to many other problems more pernicious and pervasive than the ones we face in the present”.
Catholics make up around 80 per cent of the population in the Philippines. The annual birth rate has been steadily declining, but the government points out that some of the poorest regions have the highest rates.
The UN has said a lack of education and access to condoms has led to an explosion of HIV infections in the Philippines, which it said is now one of seven countries in the world where cases have risen by 25 per cent or more since 2001.