Friday, July 18, 2008



The Non-Debate


I am reviving this blog after a long hiatus. This revival is partly due to a personal, felt need, queries from friends, and mostly the encouragement of my wife. I got distracted in large part by my job search, which many of you know about, including a quite unexpected trip to California. I will endeavor to be more regular about this in the future, and will remind many of you when I make new postings.

Today’s blog is a slightly revised version of a letter I recently sent to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, by far the best English language newspaper in the Philippines, and the one enjoying the largest circulation. Being in English, its readership is primarily middle and upper class. It has national distribution and is the leading newspaper in all major cities including, of course, Metropolitan Manila. Its online edition, , is among the top ten sites for hits on the World Wide Web, reflecting the millions of Filipino overseas contract workers who read it to stay in touch with life at home.

The letter addresses a recent controversy here in the Philippines involving the Roman Catholic Bishops’ opposition to birth control and their threatening to withhold communion from “pro-abortion politicians.” There are in fact no politicians in the Philippines advocating the legalization of abortion. It is a non-debate and that is the subject of my letter.

Thus far it has not been published, and I suspect it will not be. The length is not the issue. The INQUIRER publishes lots of long letters to the editor. I believe the issue is the INQUIRER’s fear of further antagonizing the Roman Catholic Church.

The odd thing is that there is nothing for the INQUIRER to fear. Nor is their anything for politicians to fear from the Bishops. Survey after survey indicates that very few Catholic Filipinos consider the positions taken by the Bishops on political issues or on candidates. When they vote, or make choices about their family or personal lives, Filipinos vote based on their experience. Despite an often magical world-view, Filipinos are very much this-worldly. There is no contradiction and that in it self could be the subject of a future blog.

I have been deeply nurtured in my spiritual and political life by Roman Catholic priests, brothers, sisters, and lay leaders. This has been the case in the United States and in the Philippines. But I also insist that the biggest obstacle to development and prosperity in the Philippines is not the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, or even U.S. imperialism. The biggest obstacle to prosperity and development in the Philippines is the Roman Catholic Church and the medieval thinking it encourages.

The letter follows:


Dear Editor,

For several days now the INQUIRER and other media have been covering the controversy around the issue of the Philippine Catholic Bishops recommending that their priests withhold communion from “pro-abortion politicians.” This issue has been taken up in news articles, columns, and editorials.

I believer the INQUIRER could do more to insist that the Bishops clarify what they are saying. It is not enough to simply give a daily “tit for tat” account of what the Bishops say one day and what some politicians say the next.

I will not address the moral arguments around abortion. For one, these are quite complex involving definitions of what constitutes abortion and issues of fetal development and consciousness. Secondly, no Philippine politician, to my knowledge, is advocating the legalization of abortion. The reproductive health legislation before the Philippine Congress and the ordinance approved by the Quezon City Council all explicitly reaffirm the illegality of abortion.

That is the point of this letter. What, exactly, are the Bishops saying? What is the point of condemning “pro-abortion politicians” when, in fact, there aren’t any? This is where the major newspaper in the Philippines must be more proactive. The INQUIRER must aggressively interview – interrogate even – the Bishops directly and not simply report what they say in a press release or press conference. This is a case where a religious organization has insinuated itself into the public sphere and the Bishops must be held accountable for their words and their logic in the same way as politicians.

If pushed on their statements, the Bishops would probably say something like this: “Promoting artificial birth control lowers the overall moral climate of a nation resulting in more extra-marital and unplanned sex resulting in more pregnancies and ultimately in more abortions.” Again, the media need to push them on these issues as their reasoning is contrary to all empirical evidence and also shows a marked confusion over what the Roman Catholic Church actually teaches.

I have taught Christian Social Ethics (Moral Theology) to both Catholic and Protestant students preparing for ministry in both the Philippines and the United States. Although I am not a Roman Catholic, as a student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, I studied ethics from Jesuit theologians and ethicists. To put it simply, I know what I’m talking about.

While the Roman Catholic Church opposes so-called “artificial birth control,” this is normally treated as a separate matter from abortion. According to Roman Catholic teaching, abortion is legitimate only when continuing the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, or when it is collateral to some other life-saving medical procedure, such as removing a cancerous uterus that happens to contain a fetus.

With regard to “artificial birth control” such as birth control pills, vasectomy, or condoms, while the Catholic Church clearly opposes this, it is an area where a Roman Catholic may disagree with the Church and still be in communion.

As for suggestions that promoting “artificial birth control” somehow leads to more abortions, nothing could be further from the truth. On several occasions INQUIRER articles have cited the figure that there are close to a half million abortions per year in the Philippines. This is close to the number of abortions annually in the United States, a country where abortion is legal in all states, and accessible in most. The United States is a much more populous country where “artificial birth control” is readily available yet, relative to the size of the population, there are far fewer abortions in the United States than in the Philippines.

The aggressive promotion of birth control and family planning technology in Malaysia and Thailand in the 1970s is telling. At that time, the population growth rates in those countries and in the Philippines were similar. Today, the population growth rate remains dangerously high in the Philippines, but is much lower in Malaysia and Thailand. The rapid economic growth in those two countries is attributable, in part, to the drop in population growth. Money that would otherwise have gone to schools to educate the growing number of children each year could be invested in infrastructure, resulting in more prosperous societies. The smaller number of children who were born in Malaysia and Thailand could go to better, less crowded schools, providing them a better education and resulting in countries that are, again, more competitive economically.

While the United States may be more liberal than the Philippines in matters of human sexuality, it is more conservative than many Western European countries. In the Netherlands and in the Scandinavian countries, for instance, sex education begins at a younger age than in the USA, and is far more comprehensive. Young people understand how their bodies work and how, if they choose to be sexually active, to avoid pregnancy. In these more liberal countries, however, young people start having sex at a later age and with far fewer pregnancies and abortions than in the relatively more conservative United States.

The basis of most Roman Catholic Social Teaching is what is called, “Natural Law.” Another way of talking about natural law is to speak of common sense or, simply, what we know from applying human reason. Common sense suggests that if couples have access to birth control – artificial or otherwise – there would be fewer unplanned pregnancies and fewer abortions.

Today in the Philippines a significant number of people are not Roman Catholic. They are Protestants, evangelicals, Muslims, members of other faiths, and nonbelievers. Add to that the greater number of Roman Catholics who choose not to live every aspect of their lives according to Roman Catholic teaching, and you probably have a majority of the population. This majority, while generally opposing abortion, accepts modern birth control and family planning as a normal part of modern life and deeply resents the imposition by the Roman Catholic Bishops of a minority point of view on the general population.

Insofar as there really is no abortion debate in the Philippines, it seems to be “artificial birth control” that has the Bishops so upset. It is the responsibility of the INQUIRER and other media to insist that the Bishops clarify this and to explain their reasoning. If their reasoning is flawed, it is the responsibility of the media to point this out.

Respectfully submitted,

1 comment:

Joel said...

Hey, man, easily! You can have high blood pressure :-)
Filipinos are not interested about the official catholic view on family planning, so why would the Inquirer bother more the bishops? Probably, archeology and anthropology would be interested after 1,000 years :-0
Cheers, man.