By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Resisting Religious Imposition: Catholic Fundamentalisms in the Philippines

Many Catholic churches all over the Philippines currently display huge, towering banners with a dark and sinister, hooded figure carrying a child. The frightening image proclaims an even more frightening message: to oppose the bill on Reproductive Health (RH). While there are no new battle lines here (the church’s stand against contraception turned forty this year), it is the intensity of the attacks by the church against views and beliefs, different from its own that has reached new heights.

According to recent polls, majority of Roman Catholic Filipinos still think that modern family planning methods ought to be made available by government, to those who want to use them. Sixty-eight percent of a representative sample agreed that a law should provide for family planning services and 54 percent do not agree that providing sexuality education in schools will influence the youth to be sexually promiscuous, confirming the result of earlier surveys. Filipino Catholics are no different from majority of Catholics all over the world who approve of the use of contraception for family planning, in spite of the Catholic Church prohibition against it.

Despite the popular sentiment many elected officials do not want to cross the Catholic hierarchy. Congress took nine years (in its last three terms) in getting the bill to the last stages of sponsorship. While the bill’s chances of passing Congress this year are actually better than ever, President Arroyo has threatened to veto the bill. Many believe that Arroyo’s Roman Catholic views (and refusal to fund family modern planning methods) are more likely political convenience than religiously-based reasons in the face of her admission that she also used pills.

Advocates usually invoke the separation of church and state and mostly tell the church to keep out of state affairs or secular matters. But we ought to remember that the separation of church and state is only the means and not an end by itself. The values of pluralism, non-imposition and protecting the minority from the majority are the very stuff of religious freedom and free exercise, and sexual and reproductive rights advocates need to start talking more about these values. ”

Shutting religion out of the debate only reifies the position of religious authorities (usually the most vocal) as the singular view within a religious tradition and fails to highlight the diversity of views within and among religious traditions.

NGOs are engaging Roman Catholicism by emphasizing the diversity of Catholic views. In 2003, Womenlead Foundation, Inc. initiated a forum where women of different faiths talked about the struggles within religions for the recognition of women’s human rights; Health Action Initiatives Network (HAIN) has been organizing Roman Catholics in the local reproductive health movement and conducting Religion, Gender and Sexuality Training programs; Linangan ng Kababaihan (LIKHAAN) has staged a play which engages the influence of Roman Catholic views on women’s decisions to have abortions.

Framers of the debate (advocates and media) have yet to catch up with this approach. Many still refer to the bill as a population control measure, summing up the conflict as a clash between the state population control agenda and the Catholic Church, failing to note the framework of rights behind the measure. (A recently completed media study on framing the population/RH issue by the Ateneo School of Government makes a similar observation.) While demographic goals for the State indeed existed under the 1973 Constitution, they were scrapped in 1987 in favour of provisions more consistent with rights frameworks.

Secularism Threatened

Secularist ideas of the state took root in the movements against Spanish colonization. The Philippine Constitution draws its clauses on religious freedom, non-establishment and the separation of church from the US Bill of Rights but the earliest articulation of religious freedom and the separation of church and state by the revolutionary movements emphasized “liberty and the equality of all religions,” premised on a plurality of beliefs.

When the Church invokes its opposition to an imagined “state imposition” of a population control agenda, it downplays the conflict of beliefs around contraception because other Christian churches through position papers, and Muslims by way of a fatwa have supported the bill.

Frances Kissling defines fundamentalisms as “reactive movements within religion that base their values and positions on literal interpretations of religious texts.” She notes that fundamentalists either withdraw from the world or attempt to enforce their beliefs on everyone and that “fundamentalism exists within all religions.” Lynn Freedman also points out that “law” and the “state” occupy a central place in virtually all fundamentalist projects where both law and religious authority is sacralised and considered absolute.

Freedman adds that religion is not synonymous with religious authorities or institutions and individuals who use religion to legitimate their political ambition. This cautions us to be careful about using “fundamentalist” to describe or label all conservative or religious views. In the context of sexual and reproductive rights, not all conservative views about sex necessarily stem from fundamentalist beliefs.

Framing Resistance

Persistently, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has labelled RH as abortion and thereby whips up moral panic in Congress, bringing all public debate and discussion to a grinding halt. While advocates remain divided on the issue of legalizing abortion, the RH bill does not really propose the legalization of abortion. A standard of humane treatment for those who undergo post abortion care is as far as the bill goes. Advocates explaining how the Church’s “accusation” of legalizing abortion is misleading fall into the danger of reinforcing the moral panic around abortion. Beyond issuing a “disclaimer,” opening up the conversation on abortion remains important considering that rates of clandestine abortions and maternal deaths in the Philippines remain alarmingly high.A purportedly Pro-Life position advocating penal sanctions for women who undergo abortion is no longer considered a morally defensible position - let alone one that promotes life. Consensus that abortion bans do not result in fewer abortions but mainly lead to clandestine and unsafe abortions is growing and supported by empirical evidence.

During the 1987 Constitutional convention, feminists avoided controversial issues like divorce and abortion but the Catholic Church lobbied to insert a provision recognizing the “right to life” of a fertilized ovum. By the end of the Constitutional Convention, the final provision read: “The State shall equally protect the mother and the unborn from conception.”

Despite the reference to “conception” however, the Philippine Constitutional Commission** never agreed on a categorical definition of conception and believed that to do so would run counter to the Constitution’s non-establishment clause and violate the essence of the bill of rights which “ensures the protection of the minority from the majority.” By refusing to treat the legal discourse on conception (and abortion) in absolutist terms, the framers of the 1987 Constitution showed us a braver and more respectful way to move forward.


The Humanae Vitae, Encyclicals issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968

Maureen S. Maquiddang, “Majority of Filipinos want law on contraceptives – SWS,” October 15, 2008, Newsbreak/

A World View, Catholic Attitudes on Sexual Behavior and Reproductive Health, Catholics for Free Choice, 2004.

Marites N. Sison, “Arroyo used Pills but is against Birth Control,” 12-13 March 2008 Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

Carolina S. Ruiz Austria, “Secular Rights and Monopolies of Morality: Reframing the Legal Discourse of Abortion in the Philippines,” LLM Thesis, Master of Laws, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto (2008).

Interview with Frances Kissling by Cassandra Balchin, AWID (2008)

Lynn P. Freedman, “The Challenge of Fundamentalisms,” Reproductive Health Matters, Vol.8, November 1996.

Allan Guttmacher Institute and University of the Philippines Population Institute

Rebecca J. Cook and Bernard M. Dickens, “Human Rights Dynamics of Abortion Law Reform,”Human Rights Quarterly, 25 Johns Hopkins University Press, (2003)

Mercedes L. Fabros, Aileen Paguntalan,, “From Sanas to Dapat: Negotiating Entitlement in Reproductive Decision Making in the Philippines,” Negotiating Reproductive Rights, Women’s Perspectives Across Countries, Rosalind Petchesky and Karen Judd, Eds., International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group (IRRAG),
New York: Zed Books, 1998)

**The Romulo amendment which was unanimously adopted (30-0) reflects this consensus: “The reasons for my amendment are as follows: First, I do not believe this original sentence belongs to the Article on the Bill of Rights. It is not only jarring but also contradictory to the main purpose of a bill of rights. The Bill of Rights is supposed to protect the individual from the state and the minority from the majority. This original proposal impinges on the right of the minorities who do not believe in this Catholic concept. Thus, I think it is less objectionable and will accomplish the same purpose, if we transpose it to another article in the way that I have suggested.” (July 18, 1986 Record of the Constitutional Commission, Volume One p. 721-722)


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