The Politics of Birth Control

(cross-posted from

Pop Quiz: Match the country with its government’s birth control news:

1) In Country A, the president pledges to provide birth control to poor couples who want it.

2) In Country B, the legislature hedges on making any commitments to providing low-cost birth control to women who want it, in the face of loud opposition from Catholic Bishops.

Ok, from the set-up of the question, you might already have guessed that Country B is the U.S. (come on, President Obama making pledges about birth control?  Sounds like something Candidate Obama might have said…).  The surprising part is that Country A is not some godless European nation, but instead the Philippines, whose population is (wait for it) 80% Catholic. 

Philippino President Benigno Aquino announced earlier this week that his government will provide birth control to poor couples to help curb the country’s high birth rate.  Predictably, the Catholic Bishops there aren’t pleased with this, and have said they will support planned protests in response to the announcement.  Perhaps less predictably, Aquino and co. seem uncowed by the furor.  Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda noted that Aquino had already stated his position during his campaign, and, reasonably enough, ”we believe that parents should be the one to decide on the size of their family, the manner and the method by which the planning should be done.”  Lacierda also addressed the Bishops’ denounciation: “We have been inviting [church leadership] to a dialogue…if they want us to explain the President’s position, we are more than willing to do so.”

Meanwhile, back in the uber-progressive United States, the extreme religious right has succeeded in making “contraception” almost as toxic a word as “abortion” when it comes to politics.  In a country where less than 1/4 of the population identify as Catholic (and of those, some significant percentage disagrees with the Church’s position on birth control), the Catholic Bishops still were able to heavily influence the legislature when it came to coverage of abortion in the health care reform debate.  And they didn’t stop there.  Heaven forbid women who can’t afford abortions (much less children) be able to obtain the means of preventing pregnancy in the first place.  No, that would be letting Women Who Sin get away with their sinful ways by NOT being forced to have babies they don’t want.  And being forced to have babies is what women who have sex deserve.

Or at least, that’s the only possible logic (twisted though it is) that I can come up with for opposing both abortion and all means of birth control.  Women’s rights groups pushed during the HCR debate to have birth control included in a list of preventive services to be offered without co-pays (ie, free to patients covered  by health insurance)– the idea being that these services cut costs in the long run because prevention is cheaper than treatment (or, in this case, unwanted children).  Obviously, free birth control would mean lots of ladies having guilt-free sex, and that clearly goes against the Bishops’ agenda.  But of course, saying that out loud would expose them for the mysogynists they are, so here’s what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops say instead:

“Prescription contraceptives don’t prevent or screen for disease. Their purpose is to block the normal functioning of a healthy reproductive system. They prevent a person from being conceived or born.”

In their letter to HHS, the Bishops go on to cite questionable data linking birth control with various harmful side effects.  Nice double whammy there, Bishops: start with the purposeful misreading of the term “preventive,” and then jump right into the scare factor.  Clearly, no one is arguing that pregnancy is a disease; the argument in favor of BC as preventive service is that the use of contraceptives prevents an unwanted medical condition, which for many women pregnancy is.  RH Reality Check’s Robin Marty wonders whether the Bishops will “outmaneuver  and strong arm politicians into abandoning any promises to help women through health care reform?”  The Pollyanna in me wants to say no, but let’s get real.  It’s an election year.  Once it’s not an election year, there’ll be another excuse.  And meanwhile, the United States is regressing rather than progressing on women’s rights issues.  I’m all for progress in the Philippines, but it also showcases a pretty sad contrast when their politicians have more guts to stand up to their Bishops than ours do.

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  • crowepps

    The per capita income in the Philippines if $3300 annually.  The average family size: 5.  Total fertility rate of women: 3.27.  Try feeding yourself and raising three kids on $275 a month.


    The poverty rate is staggering:

    MANILA, Philippines—An estimated 9.4 million households, or 50 percent of total households in the country, consider themselves “poor,” while some 7.2 million households, or 38 percent, consider themselves “food-poor,” according to the latest survey of the Social Weather Stations.

    It is estimated that 70% of unwanted pregnancies are ended by illegal abortions and 25% of overall pregnancies in the Philippines are terminated.  100,000 women are hospitalized annually for serious complications from illegal abortions.


    Believe me, if our poverty rate TRIPLED to their level, and politicians were facing a strong possibility of having to deal with starvation and food riots, there would be a lot less pandering to the Church’s hysteria about sex being ‘procreative’.

  • prochoicekatie

    The funny thing is that if we don’t do something about our lackluster family planning policies and instead allow social conservatives to dictate how and in what ways women should plan their families, we WILL begin to face greater issues regarding poverty, families that are too big, and increased illegal or unsafe abortion.

    Despite the loud voices of the Catholic Bishops, we must make sure that the facts are LOUDER – without family planning, countries suffer from illegal abortion and poverty. Period.

  • leonkolankiewicz

    Kudos to Philippino President Benigno Aquino.  I hope he sticks to his guns as the misguided Catholic Church turns up the heat on him, and I’m speaking as a Catholic myself (not yet excommunicated!). 


    The Philippines has a huge problem with unsustainable population growth, which is destroying its environment and interferring with its prospects for sustainable economic development and simple human dignity.  Its population has more than tripled since 1960, from under 30 million to more than 90 million.  At its current growth rate of 2%, the population will double to 180 million in just another 35 years, which will be DISASTROUS for its environment and resources, and lead to still more poverty and hunger as food supplies grow scarce nationally and globally.