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One of the most Catholic countries in the world will give free birth control to millions of women

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a ceremony in Davao City, southern Philippines, in November 2016. (Cerilo Ebrano/European Pressphoto Agency)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an executive order directing government agencies to provide contraception to 6 million Filipino women who don't have access to birth control and other reproductive health-related services.

The executive order implements landmark legislation signed by Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012, also called the RPRH Act, provides poor women access to reproductive health information and services. The law, which was fiercely opposed by antiabortion advocates, “recognizes the right of Filipinos to decide freely and responsibly on their desired number and spacing of children,” according to the executive order signed Monday.

Citing 2013 findings by the Philippine National Demographic and Health Survey, the order states that at least 6 million Filipino women, including 2 million who are poor, don't have access to contraception. The administration said it hopes to meet this need for all poor women by 2018.

Duterte has ordered several government agencies, including the education and health departments, to implement policies and mechanisms designed to meet the requirements of the RPRH Act. These include a comprehensive “gender-sensitive” sexuality education in the school curriculum, health insurance benefit packages for women and on-the-ground education campaigns.

“There is a plan in the next six months for local governments to go out in the field, to do house-to-house visits, identify those in need of family planning [and work] with all these agencies,” National Economic and Development Authority Director General Ernesto Pernia told reporters Wednesday.

One of the Duterte administration's socioeconomic agenda items is strengthening the RPRH Act “to enable poor couples to make informed choices on financial and family planning,” the order says.

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But the government's efforts are likely to face strong resistance from the Catholic Church. About 80 percent of the country's population — about 74.2 million people — are Roman Catholic, according to the last census of the National Statistics Office in 2010.

Implementation of the RPRH Act, which sat in Congress for more than a decade before it was enacted, has been bogged down in the courts.

In July 2015, when about 400,000 birth control implants had already been acquired, the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against distribution of the implants, which can prevent pregnancies for up to three years, and against renewal of licenses for other contraceptives, according to CNN Philippines. The order was issued after antiabortion groups, believing that contraceptives cause abortions, fought the law in court.

The government is seeking to have the restraining order lifted.

“The government cannot continue to tolerate this delay in judgment,” Pernia told reporters.

After the law was signed in December 2012, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which staunchly opposed the bill in Congress, sought to invalidate it in court. But in 2014, the Supreme Court found the controversial law, except for a few sections, to be constitutional, GMA News reported.

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One section that was declared void would have required private and religious hospitals to refer patients to other facilities that provide contraception and other services. Others would have punished providers for not distributing reproductive health-related information to patients and would have allowed minors to receive family planning services without their parents' consent.

Following the ruling, the Rev. Melvin Castro of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines told reporters that he respects the court's decision. But, he said, according to GMA News, he will not let “the gospel teaching be compromised.”

Duterte, the tough-talking former mayor who is also known as the Philippines' “Dirty Harry,” has long been in favor of contraception. He has also spoken favorably of the LGBT community and same-sex marriage.

“It's good; everyone deserves to be happy,” he said of same-sex marriage during a television interview in 2015, adding that he does not like to see gays being bullied.

Duterte has vowed that the RPRH Act will be implemented under his watch. In his first State of the Union address in July, he said the law will help ensure that poor people are able to adequately care and provide for their children, “eventually making them more productive members of the labor force.”

Last June, Duterte accused the Catholic Church of keeping the public “in total ignorance” about birth control and using faith to scare them.

“You tell the children that they will go to hell. You always use that to scare them. But that is not true. Hell is here,” he said during a TV show, according to news website Politiko.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency, the average annual birthrate in the Philippines — 24 births per 1,000 people — is higher than in many Asian countries, including China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.


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