Benjie Oliveros | Reproductive Health, A Simple Yet Complicated Issue


Every now and then, the debate over the proposed reproductive health bill heats up. The most recent salvo was when Catholic bishops declared, with dramatic flair, their determination to fight the bill even if it becomes a law, saying that they are willing to “go to prison” for refusing to implement it.

We could expect the debate over the bill to heat up once again because the Aquino government fired another shot. Just last week. October 9, Rosalinda Marcelino, Population Commission director for Metro Manila, told members of the House committee on population that in just the first four months of the Aquino government, the population grew by 500,000, and would, by the end of the year, reach 94. 6 million. The country’s annual two percent rate of increase in the population is, she said, the fastest rate in Southeast Asia.

The debate over the reproductive health bill began to heat up when President Benigno Aquino III declared, while in New York, his determination to have it passed into law. It was a bold move, considering the power of the Catholic church in this country. Even his mother, the late president Cory Aquino, or Fidel V. Ramos, who is a protestant, did not dare push for a similar bill so as not to put them in direct confrontation with the Catholic bishops. The late Cory Aquino followed the wishes of the bishops by endorsing natural methods of family planning. Ramos allowed the Department of Health, during his term, to promote other family planning methods, albeit quietly.

President Benigno Aquino III has repeatedly said he is pushing for the bill to give families the right to choose which family planning method they would like to use and to make contraceptives accessible to the poor. The Catholic bishops, on the other hand, buttress their opposition to it by claiming that using artificial family planning methods is tantamount to killing an unborn child. Second, they say that family planning and population control are not the solutions to poverty.

The first argument of the Catholic bishops regarding the killing of an unborn child is debatable; it is an imposition of a religious belief; and it is moralistic, thus, highly subjective. However, their second point hits the nail on the head.

The proposed bill of Rep. Edcel Lagman and the efforts of the Aquino government to push for a reproductive health bill are centered on one concern: population control. Thus, Gabriela Women’s Party Representative Luzviminda Ilagan rightfully called this single-minded concern for population control as “myopic.”

The push for population control is premised on the belief that an ever increasing population would eventually cause a shortage of food, land, and other resources. It would also cause too much pressure on the environment. Thus, the more the population increases, the poorer the people would become.

These concerns and assertions are but a repetition of an argument put forward by an Aglican clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus in his paper “The Principle of Population.” Malthus argued that the population increases geometrically while subsistence grows arithmetically. Thus, if the rate of increase of the population is not controlled, the world would reach a point where there would be widespread hunger.

Do you think the moralist argument of the Catholic church is archaic? Well, Malthus’s ideas gained adherents around 1821, which is not too recent either.

Critics of the Malthus theory of population correctly pointed out that he failed to take into account techonological improvements, especially since his theory was put forward when the industrial revolution was just beginning and land was still the main resource. And history has proven that Malthus was wrong because based on his projections, humankind should have been experiencing massive starvation now. On the contrary, a United Nations Development Program 1999 report revealed that food production per capita from 1990-97 has increased by 25 percent. Added to this, Ann F. Wolfgram, in her paper “POPULATION, RESOURCES & ENVIRONMENT: A Survey of the Debate,” quoted a World Bank report on the Green Revolution saying that “food production has stayed ahead of population growth.”

Add to this the fact that while hunger is not prevalent in advanced capitalist countries, it is a worsening problem in developing countries, which are rich in land and natural resources such as in the African continent. The same is true with the Philippines, albeit at a lesser degree than African countries.

So if the Malthus’s theory of population has been proven wrong, why is it still being propagated now. Perhaps the so-called population explosion is a convenient excuse for the hunger and poverty in the world. It obscures the fact that while technological improvements have created an abudance of food and other basic commodities and necessities in life, poverty is worsening and afflicting the majority of the people in the world, and hunger is prevalent in the least developed countries, most of which, ironically, are rich in natural resources.

Second, and the more important point is that the increase in the population, especially in resource-rich but poor countries, is being viewed as contrary to the national interests of the most powerful nation in the world, the US.

On December 10, 1974, a study with the title “National Security Study Memorandum 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests” (NSSM200) was completed by a group comprised of the Central Intelligence Agency, the State, Defense, and Agriculture departments and the Agency for International Development. The study was compiled by the US National Security Council under the guidance of Henry Kissinger.

The following are important insights lifted from the paper, which reveal why the US considers population as a national security issue:

“The United States has become increasingly dependent on mineral imports from developing countries in recent decades, and this trend is likely to continue. The location of known reserves of higher-grade ores of most minerals favors increasing dependence of all industrialized regions on imports from less developed countries. The real problems of mineral supplies lie, not in basic physical sufficiency, but in the politico-economic issues of access, terms for exploration and exploitation, and division of the benefits among producers, consumers, and host country governments.”

“In the extreme cases where population pressures lead to endemic famine, food riots, and breakdown of social order, those conditions are scarcely conducive to systematic exploration for mineral deposits or the long-term investments required for their exploitation. Short of famine, unless some minimum of popular aspirations for material improvement can be satisfied, and unless the terms of access and exploitation persuade governments and peoples that this aspect of the international economic order has “something in it for them,” concessions to foreign companies are likely to be expropriated or subjected to arbitrary intervention. Whether through government action, labor conflicts, sabotage, or civil disturbance, the smooth flow of needed materials will be jeopardized. Although population pressure is obviously not the only factor involved, these types of frustrations are much less likely under conditions of slow or zero population growth.”

Other interesting insights lifted from the report reads, “In developing countries, the burden of population factors, added to others, will weaken unstable governments, often only marginally effective in good times, and open the way for extremist regimes. Countries suffering under such burdens will be more susceptible to radicalization.”

“The young people, who are in much higher proportions in many LDCs [less developed countries], are likely to be more volatile, unstable, prone to extremes, alienation and violence than an older population. These young people can more readily be persuaded to attack the legal institutions of the government or real property of the ‘establishment,’ ‘imperialists,’ multinational corporations, or other — often foreign — influences blamed for their troubles.”

A January 19, 2005 article published by the MATHABA (Media Active To Help All Become Aware), an independent news agency based in Australia, summarized the major concerns of the paper. “NSSM 200 states that population growth in the developing world threatens U.S. security in four basic ways: First, certain large nations stand to gain significant political power and influence as a result of their growing populations. Second, the United States and its western allies have a vital interest in strategic materials which have to be imported from less-developed countries. Third, societies with high birthrates have large numbers of young people, who are more likely than older people to challenge global power structures. And last, population growth in relatively-disadvantaged countries jeopardizes U.S. investments.”

Thus, the policy paper recommended the implementation of population control programs in all developing countries. But it made special mention of 13 countries namely, India, Brazil, Egypt, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, Ethiopia , Colombia, and the Philippines.

Is this policy still in effect? The Mathaba article thinks so until it is replaced by another official strategy paper on population.

Increases in the population is not the cause of poverty and hunger. It is the access to resources. And the US is competing with the peoples of less developed countries for these resources. It is not surprising then that during the first official visit of President Benigno Aquino III to the US, the Obama administration already secured the commitment of the Aquino administration to its population-control policy.

Does this mean then that the Filipino people should push for the rejection of the reproductive health bill and support the position of the Catholic church? Certainly not. There is still a need for it while the people are still engaging in a struggle for a just and equitable society. And the reproductive health bill being pushed by the Gabriela Women’s Party is definitely the most progressive and comprehensive. It provides poor women with access to education and information on their rights, and the much-needed reproductive health services. (

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