In a landmark decision Tuesday, the Philippine Supreme Court ended a months-long legal battle with Catholic leaders when it upheld a bill that provided free contraception and sexual education to its nation’s poorest citizens.
The so-called Reproductive Health Law directs government health centers to provide free access to family planning services including contraception, sexual education and care for complications from illegal abortions.
Although contraception is widely available in the Philippines, it is often prohibitively expensive in a country where one-third of residents live in poverty. The law, which President Benigno Aquino III signed in 2012, was aimed at curbing that population’s high rates of teen pregnancy, maternal mortality and new cases of HIV and AIDS.
But Catholic leaders and church groups mounted an immediate legal challenge, arguing that such legislation would pave the way for legal abortion.
“Preventing fertilization is not a surgical, but a chemical or medical abortion,” said Father Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.
“It will destroy the trend of marriage in our country. And slowly when you bring down the bar of morality, everything follows.”
The Supreme Court’s decision struck down their petitions by maintaining the law’s constitutionality as a matter of separation of church and state in a country that is heavily Catholic.
“This monumental decision … affirms the supremacy of government in secular concerns like health and socio-economic development,” said the law’s principal author Edcel Lagman.
Supporters lauded the ruling as a victory for the nation’s poor.
“Millions of Filipino women will finally be able to regain control of their fertility, health and lives,” said Nancy Northrup of the Center for Reproductive Rights, “empowering them to make their own decisions about their health and families and participate more fully and equally in their society.”
According to Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te, opponents will have 15 days to appeal, and continued criticism seems likely.