At Large

Catholics, condoms and the RH bill

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Well, what do you know… It seems that President Benigno Aquino III’s brief mention, almost in passing, in his State of the Nation Address of the importance of “responsible parenthood” lit a fire under the bottoms of the House and Senate leadership.

Now the long-delayed Reproductive Health bill is “on the verge” of passage, at least according to the long-suffering lobby groups, and it’s all hands on deck!

Tomorrow, the plenary debate in the House of Representatives begins and will end on Wednesday, after which voting is expected to commence. Supporters are urged to show up en masse at the House, wearing purple shirts or white shirts with purple accessories (purple is considered the color of the women’s movement). They are also asked to “tweet or Facebook pro-RH legislators to attend sessions” and otherwise badger all those who signed on as cosponsors to show up and make their presence count.

Of course, the Catholic bishops and their adherents, all those who believe in keeping Filipino women “barefoot and pregnant,” can be expected to wage their own counterattack. But since everything that can be said has been said on this long-delayed bill, I think the House and the Senate are more than ready to finally vote on the measure.

Just a reminder, though: The Filipino public has long made its sentiments on reproductive health heard and loudly articulated. The only question remaining is: Who do our legislators listen to? Will it be the Filipino people, as expressed in public opinion surveys dating back to well over a decade? Or will it be a small elite composed of Church folk and their supporters?

Congress is reaching the crossroads, and let’s hope it proceeds in the right direction.

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While we’re on the topic, I do still hold out hope that our Filipino bishops and their followers on the issue of reproductive health will come around to changing their minds and easing their vociferous opposition to the idea of giving women (and men) the means to decide their reproductive fate.

I say this because Pope Benedict XVI did say in 2010 that using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS can be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” This was, wrote Jon O’Brien in a recent issue of “rd” or Religion Dispatches, a daily online magazine, “a great leap forward for the Catholic Church,” which previously condemned the promotion of condom use (deeming condoms “immoral”) even to prevent the spread of disease.

Before I go on to discuss O’Brien’s article, titled “The Truth About Catholics and Condoms,” let me clarify here that O’Brien (whom I have met personally) is the president of Catholics for  Choice and a leader of the “Condoms4Life” campaign, just so you’d know where he’s coming from. And that “rd” says it provides “a forum for journalists, scholars and advocates to share their expertise and inform the conversations that shape our lives and our democracy.” Judging from its lineup of articles, “rd” seems to cover a wide range of beliefs and opinions.

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The Pope’s statement, says O’Brien, could have meant “not only that Catholics could feel comfortable using this tried-and-tested HIV prevention method, but that many Catholic-run health care centers might start incorporating condoms into their official HIV prevention programs.”

But even after the Pope affirmed the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV, “we still hear some members of the Catholic hierarchy trying to take back the Pope’s words and doing their best to prevent condoms from reaching people who need them.”

Some bishops sought to reinterpret the Pope’s statement, with some applying it only to a narrow scope in his original message, insisting that Benedict was speaking of a hypothetical situation regarding a male prostitute. But incredibly, the Vatican held fast to the Pope’s original meaning. Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi “confirmed that the Pope intended his words to apply whether ‘you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual.’” But what O’Brien finds equally important is that the Pope chose “as his first example an individual who really exists. There are indeed sex workers all over the world, male and female.”

Reflects O’Brien: “A living, compassionate Church acknowledges realities like these and asks: what are the moral choices available for such a person?”

Worldwide, writes O’Brien, the Catholic Church provides approximately 25 percent of all AIDS care, and yet, “the principle of the Pope’s words has yet to trickle down into practice.” And while Catholic health care has provided anti-retroviral treatments to thousands, “it balks at one challenge: helping people live long, healthy lives as sexual beings.”

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“The issue is to protect life,” says South African Bishop Kevin Dowling, whose diocese “has been devastated by AIDS deaths.” Many Catholics agree, with a 2007 poll finding that the majority of Catholics in five countries agree that “using condoms is pro-life because it helps save lives.”

We’re not just talking about HIV/AIDS and condoms here, I believe. The benefits of reproductive health services have long been established, and their necessity, in light of our worsening data on child and maternal health, need no longer be proven.

O’Brien says that “the hierarchy’s reluctance to acknowledge facts already grasped by ordinary Catholics is nothing new.” Neither is the power of Church leaders to stand as obstacles to change, even if that change is beneficial to society and to human beings. We can only pray that the bishops look deep into their hearts and consciences to acknowledge that condoms—and the whole range of reproductive health services—can and do save lives. That condoms and reproductive health are in fact life-affirming.

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