The global food price crisis has revived the population debate in the Philippines. Analysts insist the high population growth rate of the Philippines is not sustainable. Food production may be increasing over the years but the number of Filipinos is increasing at a faster rate. Today, the Philippine population is around 90 million.
Policymakers are beginning to realize the importance of providing family planning supplies to poor Filipinos. The government has recently approved the release of additional funds for this purpose. As expected, the powerful Catholic Church is opposing this program. The church equates artificial family planning with abortion.
A Filipino economist notes there are three contending views in the population debate: the population pessimists, the population optimists, and the population revisionists.
The population pessimists do not want a high population growth. They assert that a high population growth rate adversely impacts all indicators of human development: health, education, food security, shelter, employment and environment. They also believe that a high fertility rate also impacts negatively on economic growth. High consumption of families retards savings and increases government expenditures. In short, rapid population growth aggravates and even abets inequality.
The population optimists think that population is the ultimate resource. They point out that high population growth brings tremendous possibilities for technical change since the rate of return in the economy is larger. There are more entrepreneurs, more creators, and more innovators in the economy. Industries benefit from the stable supply of young workers.
The population revisionists believe population growth may or may not be detrimental to economic and human development. High population generates different impact on societies. It depends on time, place and circumstances.
These contending views have influenced government policies over the years. But it is the church which has exercised the greatest power in manipulating the government’s population control program. Church intervention has distorted and weakened the capability of the government to manage the country’s population.
The government’s population policies are inadequate. They contain weak measures to deal with high fertility rates. The programs are couched in vague language in order not to provoke the opposition of the Catholic Bishops.
The Philippine Population Act was enacted in 1971. The Commission on Population was eventually established. A special committee recommended that fertility or family planning policies should be formulated within the context of the family welfare objective.
During the 1980s the right of couples to determine the number of children was emphasized and family planning was packaged as a health intervention. During the early 1990s the link between rapid population growth and poverty was recognized. The family planning function was devolved to local governments.
A decade ago population growth reduction focused on unmet family planning needs. The principle of contraceptive self-reliance was adopted. For the first time, the government allocated subsidies for the purchase of contraceptives.
The current administration recognizes family planning as a component of women’s health and as a means to achieve the fertility desires of couples. Four pillars of population policy were identified: responsible parenthood, respect for life, birth spacing and informed choice.
In the last three decades the church has succeeded in preventing the government from completely endorsing artificial family planning methods. The church has used its clout to dilute the government’s population programs.
During public hearings in Congress, officials of the Commission on Population rejected a population control bill, since according to them the government is only supporting the natural family planning method. Even Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has ordered the Department of Health to stop procuring artificial family planning commodities.
This has led to disastrous consequences. Condoms and pills were removed from many health centers. Poor women are washing used condoms since the free family planning supplies are no longer available.
An administration lawmaker is irked by the government’s insistence on relying solely on the natural family planning method. He said, "For so many poor and uneducated couples, learning the natural family planning method as the only means of family planning is too difficult, cumbersome and needs much discipline and spirituality. Many are not able to make it. The poor are already deprived of so many things. And to deprive them of lovemaking when they spontaneously feel like doing so is to make their lives even more miserable."
Perhaps sensing the futility of convincing lawmakers about the need to pass a national law on population control, some NGOs have directed their lobbying efforts toward local governments.
NGOs are reminding local officials about how population dynamics plays an important role in provincial income growth. They cite studies which show that provinces with a high proportion of young dependents have a high level of poverty.
The traditional thinking is that lower population growth can decrease the tax earnings of local governments. But this can be offset by higher per capita income. Provinces with lower population growth have a higher budget surplus. This means local governments can manage population growth and still be assured of benefits in terms of budget surpluses which can be plowed back into social and economic programs.
Meanwhile, the church and its allies are still exerting strong pressure to prevent national and local politicians from implementing artificial family planning programs. They are also gaining support in their persuasive argument that poverty in the Philippines is caused by corruption and not by overpopulation.
They are also accusing the West of undermining the sovereignty of poor countries by forcing governments to impose population control measures. This accusation is not without basis. According to an article written by Joseph Brewda for the Executive Intelligence Review, the U.S. National Security Council completed a classified study in 1974 which claimed that population growth in poor countries was a grave threat to U.S. national security. Brewda added that the study outlined a covert plan to reduce population growth in poor countries through birth control, and also, implicitly, war and famine.
The study paid special attention to 13 countries in which the U.S. has a special political and strategic interest, namely: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Turkey, Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia.
The population debate in the Philippines will continue to divide the country. Right now, the population optimists have the upper hand in the government. Things may change once the Philippine population reaches 100 million in the next few years.