The Philippine Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a family planning law is constitutional, allowing the government to provide more reproductive health care services — such as birth control and education — primarily to the country's poor, despite strong opposition from the Roman Catholic Church.
Supporters of the law cheered as court spokesman Theodore Te announced the ruling in Baguio, on the northern island of Luzon, where it was issued. President Benigno Aquino III signed the Reproductive Health Law in December 2012, but the court imposed a temporary restraining order while it studied petitions questioning the law’s constitutionality.
Te said the court struck down some details of law as unconstitutional: One provision would have punished health workers who failed or refused to support reproductive health programs, and another would have defined abortifacients — drugs or devices — as only those that "primarily" induce abortion.
Opponents have 15 days to ask the court to reconsider its ruling, Te said.
Catholic leaders consider the law an attack on the church's core values and say it promotes promiscuity and destroys life. The government says it helps the poor manage the number of children they have and provides for maternal health care.
Aquino certified the legislation as urgent, aiming to reduce maternal deaths and promote family planning in the impoverished country, which has one of Asia's fastest-growing populations.
The United Nations Population Fund counts 3.4 million pregnancies in the Philippines annually. Half are unintended, and a third are aborted, often in clandestine and unsafe procedures. The fund says 11 women in the country die of pregnancy-related causes every day.
The family planning law directs government health centers to provide free access to nearly all contraceptives to everyone, particularly the country's poorest, who make up about a third of the country's 96 million people. Some local officials who support the church have banned the distribution of free condoms and other contraceptives in their areas.
Another key feature of the law makes sexual education compulsory in public schools.
The law bans abortion drugs, but it requires health workers to provide care for those who have complications from illegal abortions.
Under the measure, the government will hire more village health workers to distribute contraceptives to the poor and provide instructions on natural family planning methods.
The government will train teachers who will provide age- and development-appropriate reproductive health education to 10-to-19-year-olds. This will include information on protection against discrimination and sexual abuse, teen pregnancy and women's and children's rights.
Retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz, one of the sharpest critics of the law, told Filipino television network ABS-CBN that it will promote abortion. "'Reproductive health' is a misnomer because it is against reproduction," he said.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, hailed the decision because "millions of Filipino women will finally be able to regain control of their fertility, health and lives" with universal and free access to modern contraceptives.
"The Reproductive Health Law is a historic step forward for all women in the Philippines, empowering them to make their own decisions about their health and families and participate more fully and equally in their society," she said.
The U.N. Population Fund welcomed the court's decision, saying it "recognizes the basic human right of Filipinos to reproductive health."
"The full and speedy implementation of the law will be critically important in reducing maternal mortality and ensuring universal access to reproductive health care," it said, citing the "consistently high" maternal mortality rate of 52 deaths per 100,000 live births in the country.
The Associated Press