Monday, February 20, 2012

The Contraceptive Rights Struggle: It's No Longer Just a Local Issue

Although the Philippines is officially, a constitutional democracy, the Church, through its controlling arm, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, wields tremendous power in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.  For instance at the Church's behest, the Philippines is the only remaining country in the world that still bans divorce.

Notwithstanding that this country is greatly overpopulated, the other area where the CBCP refuses to cede control to civil authority and individual autonomy is in the area of family planning, specifically access by the people to contraceptives through government assistance. The Reproductive Health Act which was introduced in the Philippine Congress over two years ago in an attempt to place birth control decisions in the hands of the people has been languishing  there for two years as a result of pressure from the CBCP to stall—or as it would prefe—to kill it altogether, even though its backers have made concessions to the Church  that have watered down this legislation.

It didn't help matters that the RH bill was introduced during the administration of President Gloria Arroyo who was hostile to the use of contraceptives and who helped the bishops dig in on their position. However,  the current President, Benigno  Aquino, favors the right of the people to have access to artificial means of family planning. His staff  has tried to engage the Church in a dialogue regarding RH bill, but the CBCP has done nothing but give them the runaround on this matter, pretending an intent to cooperate, but instead negotiating in bad faith.

Even though the Philippines was officially granted independence from the U.S. in 1945,  there is the often heard compliant of continued undue American influence on Philippine society—and not without justification. But the U..S. is now getting a taste of  this same type of interference  by the Catholic Church and conservative evangelical Protestants in its own political realm that the Philippines has endured since the days of the Spanish friars. In the U.S. the bone of contention likewise involves the individual's right to contraception access and women's personal autonomy for pregnancy termination decisions as well.   As might be expected, the aforementioned religious lobbies oppose these rights, and like their counterparts in the Philippines some of them have even equated the use of condoms, birth control pills, and  IUD's with abortion.  

In the U.S. the matter recently came to a head when the Obama Administration issued a mandate that employers, including religious-based organizations (but excluding houses of worship), such as Catholic hospitals must furnish their employees with health benefits that include contraceptives.  So of course, these institutions protested, claiming that their "freedom of religion" was being violated. But the fact of the matter  is  that such  medical centers, schools, etc. hire workers who may not subscribe to their employers beliefs,  and  it's the rights of these employees to have this coverage, period.  (It so happens that most  American women including Catholics use birth control anyway.) Nevertheless, Obama offered a compromise: The faith-based employers  would no longer be on the hook for this benefit.  Instead, the insurance providers would do it, and on the latter's own dime.

At first, some Catholic organizations decided to accept this proposal, but the the American counterpart to the CBCP,  the United.States Conference of Catholic Bishops stepped in and nixed the deal, just as the CBCP has welched on supposed conciliation toward the  Reproductive Health Act. One wonders if the USCCB has borrowed a page from the Catholics Bishops Conference of the Philippines' playbook in order to prevail in this matter.

Not surprisingly, prominent Republicans, who of course are religious conservatives and believe that government should not control people's lives except in their bedrooms,  back the USCCB in their refusal to go along with Obama's counter offer. Anything to embarrass him and to exploit the issue.  In fact one GOP Congressman, Roy Blunt has put forth a so-called "rights of conscience" amendment that would allow employers to refuse health car services  for their employees based on the former's  moral beliefs, no matter how arbitrary or capricious.

In short, in both the U.S. and the Philippines ecclesiastical authorities and their political supporters are meddling where they have no business or standing. In doing so they are undermining citizens' right to individual freedom of and from religion.  And no matter which country is influencing the other in this violation of both constitutions, the rights of the people in each of these nation to make some very personal choices in their lives are in grave peril.