08/07/2012 05:13 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

With God on Their Side

Manila, the Republic of the Philippines

The Filipino people are no strangers to suffering, and recent headlines in Manila's newspapers indicate this won't change anytime soon. China is threatening to seize a group of islands long considered sovereign Philippine territory. Last week, Typhoon Gener lashed the nation, killing at least 24 people.

Add to that a long list of problems Filipinos must face on a quotidian basis: crumbling infrastructure, electrical brownouts, rampant street crime, insurgencies by Muslim and leftist militias, high unemployment, high food prices, and environmental degradation. The nation's major cities swarm with street children forced to beg -- or worse -- for their daily rice.

To a very real degree, many of the issues bedeviling the Philippines can be traced to a single cause: overpopulation. Almost 104 million people are crammed into an archipelago with a land surface area of 115,830 square miles. California, by contrast, supports 38 million people on a relatively spacious 164,000 square miles.

Large families are a tradition in the Philippines, but most people are trying to redefine the concept of "large." Birth rates have steadily declined since 2000, with the exception of an upward blip in 2007. Talk to people in the street, and many readily opine that overpopulation is a major hindrance to the country's economic and social progress. Most want to raise fewer children than their parents did.

The problem is that they lack the basic means for limiting family size. Birth control devices and reproductive health information are exceedingly difficult to obtain. This is no accident. It is the result of a policy dictated by the Catholic Church -- more specifically, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) -- and implemented by their allies in the Philippine national legislature.

There have been periodic efforts to change this shameful situation, most recently House Bill 4244, popularly known as the Reproductive Health Bill. This is, in every sense of the phrase, moderate legislation. It would not change the current proscriptions on abortion now in place. It would simply guarantee universal access to contraceptives, provide detailed information on family planning options, and emphasize health care for women and children. A recent national poll confirmed the bill is supported by 70 percent of Filipinos.

But the bishops are not concerned with either public opinion or the reproductive welfare of their flock. To them, House Bill 4244 is the devil's policy incarnate. They have pressured legislators to reject the legislation, and their arm twisting appears as effective now as in the past: Several representatives who expressed initial support for the bill have reversed course. (Though the bishops maintain their position is divinely inspired, they apparently have no scruples about enlisting ethically compromised allies. They recently sought -- and obtained -- support from the highly unpopular former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now under investigation for corruption.)

The bill's future is thus tenuous. Certainly, the intrusion of the CBCP has done little to improve the chances of passage. President Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino supports the bill, but it has to pass legislative muster before he can sign it into law. It is scheduled for a debate closure vote by the House of Representatives later this week; if debate is ended, a full vote on the measure can proceed. Debate remains open in the national Senate, and it is unclear when or if a full vote will be scheduled.

Catholicism remains the predominant religion of the Philippines, and it is a source of strength and succor for millions of Filipinos. But the Church is at its best when it is focused on its pastoral mission, not its political agenda. True, the bishops have the right to express their opinions, political or otherwise. But as Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Randy David recently pointed out, their opinions should not automatically outweigh voices from other sectors of society.

Good manners are integral to Filipino culture, and I find David's politesse admirable. I might, however, put things in more pointed terms: a few celibate elderly men, regardless of position, must not be allowed to dictate family planning policy to those who are actually in the position to reproduce. We only need to look to Iran and Saudi Arabia to understand the dangers of excessive theocratic influence on secular society. No one needs a mullah -- or a bishop - overseeing activities in the bedroom. The Philippines deserve better.