Presidents and family planning

BENJAMIN DE Leon, who once headed the Commission on Population (Popcom) in the 1970s and is now president of the Forum for Family Planning and Development, points to the irony of the country’s population policy going haywire during the term of two female presidents: Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

De Leon says the country’s population policy began in the late ‘60s, when then President Ferdinand Marcos issued presidential decrees and letters of instruction creating Popcom and making population management an integral part of his economic programs. “He understood the gravity of the population problem, that any economic gains will be lost if there’s no family planning,” says de Leon.

In 1986, the country’s population program weakened under a very devout Catholic President Aquino. But she gave then Health Secretary Alfredo Bengzon enough room to maneuver by placing Popcom under the Department of Health (DOH). The DOH pushed family planning by including it in its maternal and child health programs.

Under the Ramos administration, the population program was included in its reproductive health programs. “He addressed the problem and gave it strong support,” says de Leon.

The Protestant Ramos also prodded local government officials to craft their own program, giving out awards to the most effective ones. And he tapped the colorful “Doctor to the Barrios” veteran Juan Flavier as his health secretary. Also a Protestant, Flavier often clashed with the Catholic Church. But he won the support of the masses by popularizing his department’s health campaigns by tapping advertisers for free advise. It helped, too, that Flavier, while small in height, was big on humor.

Ramos’s successor, Joseph Estrada, had two “tutors” in family planning who explained in layman’s terms the relationship of rapid population growth to economic growth: then National Economic and Development Authority Secretary General Felipe Medalla and Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez. Estrada once said he was lucky his parents did not practice family planning because he was the eighth of 10 children. He is also known to have sired several children by women other than his wife. But with the “tutoring” he received from his economic and health planners, Estrada saw the wisdom in managing population, once even quipping to an audience to “work harder and limit your libido.”

De Leon said those in the population management sector were at first optimistic that Arroyo, being an economist, understood the importance of population and development. “No amount of development matters without population management,” he says. “She has a Ph.D. in economics. It seems she is hiding what she knows.”

He blames this on Arroyo’s fear of and subservience to the Roman Catholic Church. “We have reliable information that she has told her cabinet members not to talk about reproductive health in front of her,” says de Leon.

Some of President Arroyo’s statements regarding family planning, meanwhile, include calling natural family planning as “internationally known, scientific, practical and 99-percent effective.” She said this in a speech marking National Women’s Day in 2003, during which she also said that the natural methods “are means of family planning acceptable to the Catholic Church, to which most Filipinos belong.”

Kaya hindi kailangan maghiwalay ang simbahan at family planning (So there should be conflict between the Church and family planning),” she said.

In New York in September 2005, Arroyo told the United Nations General Assembly and world leaders who were there that she “expect(s) the United Nations to respect the deep Catholicism of the vast majority of the Filipino people.” She added that the U.N. fund for reproductive health that was being given to the Philippines “shall be dedicated to train married couples in a natural family planning technology, which the World Health Organization has found effective compared to artificial contraceptives.”

A few months later, however, WHO Asian Region Representative Jean-Marc Olive was quoted as saying, “the failure rate of natural family planning is much higher than other contraceptives.