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Birthrates Help Keep Filipinos in Poverty

Maria Susana Espinoza of Manila did not know how birth control worked until after her fourth child was born. Soaring rice prices have focused attention on population growth.
Maria Susana Espinoza of Manila did not know how birth control worked until after her fourth child was born. Soaring rice prices have focused attention on population growth. (Blaine Harden - Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

In 2005, Catholic bishops in the southern Philippines announced that they would refuse Communion to government health workers who distributed birth control devices.

In the past two weeks, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines declined repeated requests for comment on its family planning policies. The church leadership made its last major statement on birth control last fall.

"Chemical agents and mechanical gadgets that make up the cluttered display of contraceptive methods of birth control have caused serious damage in family relationships, disrupting the unity and openness that build family life by the effects that accompany the contraceptive culture which include extramarital relationships, adolescent pregnancies, and even the hideous murderous act of abortion," said Archbishop Paciano Aniceto, chairman of a bishops' commission on family life.

Aggressive Family Planning in Thailand

In recent weeks, public alarm in the Philippines over the soaring price of rice has focused attention on the fast-growing population and its dependence on rice imports.

Despite steadily increasing rice harvests, farmers here have been unable to keep pace with domestic demand. Economists here have calculated, though, that the Philippines would not need imported rice if it had managed to control population growth -- like its neighbor Thailand.

In 1970, the population of each country was about 36 million people and growing at about 3 percent a year. But with an aggressive family planning program that provides the poor with free contraceptives, Thailand has since reduced its population growth rate to 0.9 percent. In the Philippines, the rate has declined sluggishly to about 2.1 percent.

There are now about 26 million more people in the Philippines than in Thailand.

"It's a no-brainer," said Ernesto M. Pernia, professor of economics at the University of the Philippines.

The Philippines now produces 16 million metric tons of rice a year -- and needs to import 2 million tons more to meet local demand.

"If the Philippines had pursued what Thailand has done, the Philippines would be only consuming 13 metric tons of rice per annum," Pernia said. "We could be a net exporter of 3 million metric tons."

Besides increased food security, the Philippines could have lifted 3.6 million more people out of poverty if it had followed Thailand's population growth trajectory, according to Pernia's analysis.

"Even when there is widespread corruption, insurgent violence and other powerful reasons for poverty, the evidence from across Asia is that good population policy by itself contributes to significant poverty reduction," he said.


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