Ask Josephine Gonzalez how many children a family should have and the stick-figured 31-year-old mother answers without hesitation. “I only wanted three,” she says, trying to soothe the naked baby boy who tugs at her ragged dress.
But Gonzalez is, in fact, a mother of six. Her sister Angie Maquiran, two years older, has seven children. Together with the fathers, the pair are raising their families in a public park across the street from one of Manila’s oldest Roman Catholic churches, sleeping on the ground, their possessions stuffed into a small cart that marks where home is.
Maquiran says the priests at the church tell her that “children are riches, and the more you have, the more blessed you are.” But health officials and some politicians here say that the Philippines has too many poor mouths to feed, an overpopulation problem that condemns millions of children to poverty.
Population size is an issue of perennial debate in this predominantly Catholic country, which has seen its population jump to 92.5 million from 60 million in 1990. But the situation has become more acute amid this year’s global food crisis. With the price of rice soaring, the poorest Filipinos are faced with spending more of their minuscule incomes on food or going hungry.
Critics lay some of the blame on the family-planning policies of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has sided with the church in its campaign against any form of artificial birth control.
“Those of us who study population have seen this food crisis coming for 30 years,” says Dr. Alberto Romualdez, head of the graduate school of health at the University of the City of Manila and a health secretary under former President Joseph Estrada. “Already these people couldn’t buy enough rice. Now we are having more babies born to those who can least afford it, and unfortunately one of the main reasons is the Catholic Church.”
The church rejects accusations that its anti-contraception activism is responsible for the high birthrate, citing the 2007 census, which showed the rate of annual population growth dropping to 2.04% last year from 2.36% in 2000.
“We accept that the growing population is a problem, but the facts are that when a country is poor, you will have more children,” says Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
“We had almost the same number of people this time last year and there was no rice crisis then,” Quitorio says. “Give people a job and the population will drop.”
The church has successfully fought to end campaigns by nongovernmental organizations to distribute free contraceptives and advice about artificial methods of birth control. Though wealthier Filipinos can obtain contraceptives through private clinics, the main program for free contraceptives run by the U.S. Agency for International Development is being phased out by year’s end on government orders, raising fear that the birthrate will jump when stocks run out.
So far, Arroyo has shown no inclination to change her government’s policy of urging natural family planning. And church leaders argue that attitudes toward sex, not a lack of condoms, are the reason for the higher birthrate among the poor.
“It is stretching the imagination to say our teachings have that much effect on people,” Quitorio says. “The people have their own religion. Even if you dropped a batch of condoms in the barrios it wouldn’t make a difference, because sex is recreation for the poor.
“They have no TV, no movies, they don’t read,” he says. “They have guitars and they drink. And when they drink, condoms have no place.”
On the streets, the father of Gonzalez’s six children laughs and agrees with the priest. The only time men here use a condom, Edwin Lihay-lihay says, is when they are having sex with a prostitute and fear they’ll contract AIDS.
Others say that the debate over which came first, the poverty or the overpopulation, is a distraction from the public health issue.
“Look, I’m not so sure we have too many people,” says Sen. Chiz Escudero, a popular young politician often cited as a possible 2010 presidential candidate. “Other countries have controlled their population growth and ended up with a problem of aging populations. Good for them. They’re rich and they can hire Filipino nurses to look after them.
“But we need to frame this debate as one of access to information,” he says. “Governments have a duty to inform their people about health issues and choices. What if a Muslim woman here wants to learn how to protect herself from getting pregnant? The Catholic Church can’t tell the government it is not allowed to give her health information.”
On Manila’s streets, the sisters agree that people are confused about the facts on artificial birth control.
“We get no information,” Gonzalez says. “I heard the IUD can rust inside you and make you sick.”
“Some women say the IUD is the reason they got fat,” her sister adds. But Maquiran says she no longer needs any information about birth control. Her seventh baby was her last, she says.
And she has a method for not getting pregnant again.
“Now I just don’t have sex,” she says.
Special correspondent Sol Vanzi contributed to this report.