MANILA — The Philippines, no stranger to the culture wars over contraception and abortion, will soon learn whether a controversial new law that requires the government to subsidize birth control for the poor is constitutional.
The Filipino Supreme Court's decision is expected in March, but could come earlier.
The new law makes no mention of abortion, which remains forbidden under almost all circumstances, but the Roman Catholic bishops of the Philippines have sought to frame it as such by arguing that any form of contraception other than church-approved "natural" methods or abstinence is tantamount to abortion.
Raising the stakes in this profoundly Catholic country — and the potential implications far beyond the border — is the new tone struck by Pope Francis, who has expressed frustration that the church has become “obsessed” with issues such as abortion, homosexuality and contraception.
Francis has not spoken against traditional church teachings on abortion and contraception, but he has called for Catholicism to be a more inclusive institution with a focus on social justice and tolerance.
Although 80% of Filipinos identify as Catholics, surveys indicate that about 70% of the population supports the Reproductive Health Bill and disagrees with the Catholic Church's teachings on contraception.
The law was approved a year ago after an acrimonious 14-year struggle between women's rights advocates and the Catholic bishops. The bishops threatened President Benigno Aquino III with excommunication if he signed the bill, and when that proved unpersuasive, they targeted lawmakers who had voted in favor of the bill for defeat in last May's election. That tactic also was unsuccessful.
Church-backed opponents, though, did succeed in persuading the Supreme Court to suspend the law while the judges consider arguments on its constitutionality. The key question before the court is whether the law violates a 1987 constitutional guarantee of protection for "the life of the unborn from conception."
Francis has not proposed any change to the church's core doctrine on contraception, but when he urged a shift of focus to other issues in addition to sexuality, the immediate reaction of the church hierarchy in the Philippines was to maintain otherwise.
"Contrary to the headlines of some newspapers in the Philippines, the Pope never said: Church 'obsessed' with birth control, abortion and gays," Bishop Gabriel Reyes declared in a pastoral letter. As head of the Commission on Family Life for the powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Reyes is the main voice of the church on the issue.
"When the Holy Father said that 'the Church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,' he did not mean contraception, abortion, gays, same-sex marriage," Reyes insisted. "What he meant were things like the practice of some priests in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires not to baptize children born out of wedlock."
The pope's lengthy interview with a Jesuit magazine in September made no mention of baptisms out of wedlock, but his references to obsessions with contraception and homsexuality were quite specific. Eric Genilo, a Jesuit theologian at the Ateneo di Manila University, says bluntly that Reyes' interpretation of the pope's message is wrong, and that the Filipino bishops conference's official pronouncements do not reflect the views of all members of the clergy here, perhaps not even a majority.
"The church [in the Philippines] is not a monolith, but the channels of communication are controlled by a few people, and they tend to be hardliners," he said.
Genilo says the bishops conference's official position is in line with the long history of Catholic dominance in the Philippines, which began with the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century and received a boost in the modern era with the church's prominent role in the ouster of the disliked dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
"Nationalism is associated with support for the position of the church. We are a Catholic nation, and what's good for Catholics is good for everybody — this is how our bishops think," Genilo said. "Some of them are so used to a Catholic-dominated culture that they have no idea this is pluralistic society. We don't even talk to Protestants here. It's as if they don't exist."
About 10% of the nation's population is Protestant and about 6% Muslim.
"In the debate on the bill, what you see from the church's side is a very rabid strain that has kind of hijacked the message," Genilo said. "They conflate contraception with abortion."
Although abortion is outlawed in the Philippines, about 600,000 take place each year, according to health organizations. The law mandates harsh penalties, but actual prosecutions are rare.
In recent weeks, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has softened its tone slightly. Father Melvin Castro, a spokesman for Reyes and the Commission on Family Life, acknowledged that the church was "losing the people," especially young people, because of its image as a scold.
"And so it is up to us to win back the hearts and minds of the young. That is the pope's real message," he said. "The president may have had his way this time, but this is an opportunity for the church to explain its teaching and I think this is this is a good thing for us."
The bishops, however, have not softened their tone in pressing the case before the Supreme Court. Jo Imbong, a lawyer for the bishops conference who maintains ties with antiabortion activists in the United States, contends that the law will force doctors to act against their conscience and that it targets the poor to reduce their numbers.
"It's like saying those who have less should be less," she says sternly. "This bill is meant to eradicate poverty by eradicating the poor."
But Father Joaquin Bernas, another Jesuit who has been critical of the bishops' hard-line stance, says Imbong's argument goes too far.
"Some in the church argue that all forms of birth control are an affront to life," said Bernas. "But it is very clear to me that the constitution does not prohibit birth control; what it prohibits is abortion."
At this point, it is not clear how the court's 15 justices will rule. Court watchers believe there are six votes in favor of the law, five against and four swing votes.
A key test of the pope's ability to refocus the church could come after the court's ruling. If the bishops win, will they push their advantage? If they lose, will they prolong the fight?
Genilo, the theologian at the Ateneo di Manila University, believes that whichever way the ruling goes, "the bishops can't get away with saying things if the man on top is saying something different," he said.
Father John Carroll, a Jesuit sociology professor at the Ateneo, thinks change will come slowly, and only after Francis has had an opportunity to begin replacing the bishops appointed by his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
"It will take time, maybe 20 years. But we know this pope is going to be much more concerned with the pastoral qualities of people proposed" for a bishop's post, Carroll said. "He won't be picking so many hard-liners."