IT’s an old joke that in the context of the country’s many problems wasn’t funny even when first heard decades ago. Thanks to a reproductive health program that for all practical purposes doesn’t exist, and Catholic Church encouragement of so-called “natural methods,” the Philippine population is growing at the rate of 2.2 percent per year, which compares to Thailand’s and Singapore’s .8 percent and Malaysia’s 1.9 percent.
That figure represents the difference between the birth rate and the death rate, and doesn’t mean that fewer Filipinos are dying on the contrary — but that more of them are being born each year.
The average size of the Filipino family is six — the number of children born to women of childbearing age being four. The phrase “childbearing age” usually means 15 to 49. A huge 37 percent of the population is below 15, a reality a visit to a poor neighborhood, which usually teems with children, would confirm. But children also bear children: girls below 15 do have sex, do co-habit with boys who’re no older, and do have children themselves.
The Philippine population is currently estimated at 95 million, and given the rate of increase, is projected to double in 50 years to 200 million, which would put the country in the same population league as the United States.
The crushing poverty that characterizes life for one third (some 30 million) of Filipinos who don’t have the income of about P13,000 annually the government insists is what’s needed to sustain them in food, clothing, and shelter, is what these future citizens are going to be born into unless the economic and social reforms that the country’s so-called leaders have been promising for decades, and which have been desperately needed for at least a hundred years, are somehow achieved.
The wages of poverty and high child-bearing rates include high maternal and infant mortality death rates, estimated at 240 per 100,000 and 26 per 1,000 live births, respectively. Many of those who do survive being born don’t necessarily survive long enough; many succumb to disease and malnutrition, in addition to such slings and arrows of Filipino fortune as floods and landslides. The children of which the country has so many are naturally the most common victims of such ailments as dengue, and even such simple childhood diseases as measles, and of natural calamities. Many of the victims during the flooding caused by tropical storm Ondoy last year were children.
In its campaign against artificial means of contraception, the Catholic Church does recognize the reality of poverty, but argues that it’s an economic problem that requires an economic solution. Its bishops say that limiting population growth isn’t really the solution, and the more radical among the clergy have had occasion to say that what’s needed are reforms in the economic and social structure.
The argument is that curbing population growth is something like trimming the foot to fit the shoes, whereas, what’s needed are shoes that fit. Given its resources, the argument continues, the country could support a population of 200 million or even more, if the economy were more productive and wealth more equitably distributed.
It’s a pretty big “if.” And unfortunately for those who tend to look at lowering the birth rate as the ultimate solution to poverty, the reality in, and the experience of other countries shows that curbing population growth alone won’t result in a society of affluence. Japan has a bigger population than the Philippines, but your average Japanese is several times more affluent than your average Filipino. The South African experience also shows that a lower birth rate doesn’t translate into less poverty.
What would are the reforms that would provide jobs to the poor, and higher incomes across the marginalized sectors of society. Those reforms have either not been tried, or have been sabotaged from the very beginning — not because the so-called leadership of the country lacks the political will to do so, but because the reforms that are needed would adversely affect its interests.
That’s been the case with the lame efforts to put in place a land reform law that would dismantle the tenancy system and, by getting farmers together into cooperatives in tune with modern methods of farming, increase agricultural productivity. The landlord dynasties ensconced in Congress have seen to it that every such effort will fail, even as, despite decades demonstrating that it hasn’t borne the fruits of development it supposedly would bring, the encouragement (through various inducements including unrestricted remittances of profits) of foreign investments remains an inviolable state policy.
The adamantine refusal of the Philippine ruling elite to institute the structural reforms the progressive sectors of the Catholic Church have correctly identified as crucial to development, and therefore to the mitigation of poverty, is the context in which the Church as an institution is arguing against artificial means of contraception, against sex education, and for those natural methods that just don’t work. The result is a high birth rate which brings children into the world only for them to suffer the hunger, disease and early deaths that poverty inflicts, and which undermines both the family and society as a whole through such practices as parents’ compelling children to beg, keeping them out of school, and even encouraging prostitution.
While curbing population — and along the way protecting the health of mothers and discouraging and preventing early childbirth — is not the solution to poverty, in the Philippine context it can at least help prevent needless deaths and suffering. In a situation where the reforms that are needed are practically impossible to achieve because of the irresponsibility and total commitment to its interests of the dynasties that rule the country, it’s better than nothing. But we may not see even that in this or even future lifetimes, as the institutional Church circles the wagons and the usual suspects in government bow to its will.