On April 8, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld a controversial new law that, among other things, would provide free contraceptives to poor women. The ruling is seen as a significant blow to the Catholic Church, which fought hard against the legislation for 15 years. Officially known as the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, this legislation guarantees universal access to modern contraception methods, sex education, and maternal care.
President Benigno Aquino III defied the powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines and ignored threats of excommunication when he signed the law in December 2012. But before it could take effect, church-backed opponents filed a legal challenge, arguing that most forms of contraception other than church-approved “natural” methods or abstinence are tantamount to abortion, which is forbidden by the Constitution in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.
This week, after deliberating for more than a year, the judges ruled unanimously that the RH Law, as it is called in the Philippines, is “not unconstitutional.”
The unanimous verdict was a surprise. All indications were of a closely and bitterly divided court. But recognizing the profound importance of the case in the Philippines, the 15 justices, it appears, may have reached their own compromise by agreeing to a unanimous decision, but rejecting some parts of the law that most offended the church. (The court tossed out several provisions imposing criminal sanctions against individuals and groups that refused to provide family planning services on religious grounds as well as nullified a provision that would have given minors access to contraceptives without parental consent.)
The Bishops’ Conference, which is accustomed to wielding great influence in most spheres of public life, made the best of what was clearly a disappointment, saying the court had “watered down" the RH Law. But people on the frontlines of the struggle against poverty in the Philippines were elated by the court’s decision.
"I think it is a total victory for the Filipino people. The elimination of certain provisions, we can live with," said Esperanza Cabral, former secretary of the Department of Health and an advocate of the law.
Read more from Pulitzer Center Senior Editor Tom Hundley through his project: “Indonesia and the Philippines: Gender, Health and Faith”