Almost thirty years ago, Monty Python’s Flying Circus produced a movie called The Meaning of Life. In it was one of the boys’ most famous songs – “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” Aside from the fact that the guys at MPFC caught holy hell for using children to sing the song, there was a serious message involved. Uncontrolled birth rates contribute to poverty. The evidence is very clear and is tied to religion as well. Countries that allow the Catholic Church to set social and medical policy tend to be poorer than Protestant countries that support family planning’s better life through chemistry.
Very slowly over the past half-century, the so-called Catholic countries have seen grassroots rebellion over the Church’s interference with the personal choices that couples make. American Catholics were the first to ignore the ban on birth control, and that is understandable because of the diversity of our population and the existence of a pro-birth control movement that went back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Artificial birth control, the pill and other methods, slowly spread through Poland, Ireland, France, Spain and Italy, followed by easing of divorce laws and abortion laws. The Vatican was in a losing battle for the soul of Europe, as these countries embraced prosperity over religion.
But Latin America remained solidly under the Vatican’s control until the past two decades, when even these most Catholic of nations started to realize the price they were paying for adherence to Vatican control over the most intimate of human actions and interactions. Argentina is a particularly troubling case in point. The government has been pushing family planning and birth control and having success in reaching women with their message. They are running headlong into the Latino macho male who really believes his sperm is sacred and should be planted often. The consequence in Argentina has been a half-million illegal abortions last year in a nation of forty million people. While only 0.48% of the American population have had legal abortions in that time, 1.25% of the Argentine population has gotten illegal ones.
The social shift in Latin America is starting to have real results, with Brazil in particular joining the ranks of the “emerging markets” in the global economy.
While we Americans tend to think of some European nations and all of Latin America as being Catholic, we forget that there is a large Catholic country in Asia – the Philippines. As the Asian nations have joined Japan in the growth positions in the global economy, only Myanmar and the Philippines have stagnated – Myanmar because of the sanctions imposed on a repressive military regime and the Philippines because of their rampant birth rate.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino has decided to face off against the Catholic Church. He wants to make birth control available and free to all Filipinos. Aquino is correct in citing the high birth rate as a contributor to the poverty of his nation, but the Church refuses to admit it. According to the guys in the skirts with lifetime jobs, the Philippines needs jobs, not population control. Aquino has the support of 80% of the nation’s population on this issue.
There is currently a bill making its way through the Philippine legislature that would guarantee free birth control and promote sex education in the public schools and through clinics and outreach facilities.
One quarter of the country’s 95 million people are stuck subsisting below the poverty level. Though birth control is supposed to be available, local governments like Manila’s mayor Jose Atienza, have the power to remove it from stores and make it impossible to acquire. In Manila, it is easier to get an illegal abortion than it is to get a condom.
There is only one acceptable form of birth control to the Catholic Church, their infamous “rhythm method” wherein a couple refrain from having sex during the middle of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Success is dependent on two things – a couple understanding which half of the cycle is fertile and regular cycles. In the absence of sex education, learning the method is a matter of older women teaching it to younger women and too often that means just passing on misinformation.
Use of contraceptives is easy to track against birth rates. About 45% of Philippine couples use some kind of birth control, and the birth rate is 1.9% increase per year. In Indonesia, birth control is used by 56% of the population, birth rate is 1.2%. In Thailand, it’s 80% and 0.9%. Even when birth control is available, the costs are too high for families living on less than $200 a month, so the poor are most likely to not be able to use birth control, the most likely to have too many children and be trapped in generational poverty.
Aquino’s government has promised economic growth for the country, and the President sees population control as a vital part of fulfilling that promise. Countries with lower birth rates have better economic growth and lower poverty rates. It’s a very clear relationship. But, in the Philippines, there’s that pesky problem of the Catholic Church.
The Church’s position is summed up in a statement from Father Melvin Castro, Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ Episcopal Commission on Family and Life. The church claims that poverty is a cause, not an effect, of the high birth rate. Children are born into poor families because the government is too corrupt to provide jobs, so poor families don’t have enough to eat. “It’s our firm belief that contraceptives will never be the answer. They are poor not because they have no access to contraceptives but because they have no work. Give them work and it will be the most effective birth spacing means for them.” Yup – if these people have to go out to work, they won’t have time for sex. That’s the Church’s idea of birth control. Let’s just forget that most of the poor do work and work long hours at backbreaking jobs, but they work as unskilled labor in jobs that pay abysmally low wages.
The Philippines has a young population with a median age of 22.2, compared to Malaysia’s 25, India’s 25.1 and Indonesia’s 27.8. Japan’s population is aging, with more and more people retired and dependent on the work of the young instead of contributing to the economy. But that high birth rate translates into each 100 working age Filipino supporting 58 dependents, where in Indonesia the rate is 40 to 100 workers and in Thailand 29 to 100 workers. Controlling the birth rate now, with so much of the population at both working and reproductive age, will reduce that ratio of workers to dependents.
The Philippines has had a see-saw relationship with family planning. Under dictator Ferdinand Marcos, there was a family planning clause in the constitution. But when he was removed from power and Corazon Aquino (the current President’s late mother) became President, she was indebted to the Church for supporting the revolution and her candidacy, so she scraped that part of the constitution. Attempts since then have waffled back and forth. Now, the legislature with between 70% and 80% of the population’s support has a new chance to foster family planning.
The Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control and abortion are not something based in the actual teachings of Christ. They are based on the opinion of one Pope, Sixtus V in 1588, who defied the beliefs of theologians and scholars and nearly 1600 years of Church teachings. Two hundred eighty years later, the First Vatican Council had to prop that up by defining how Popes are infallible.