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Philippine leader, bishops discuss contraceptives


LAST UPDATED: 10:39 a.m. HST, Oct 12, 2010

MANILA >> The Philippine president, aiming to avoid a head-on collision with the influential Roman Catholic Church, explained his backing for artificial birth control and received an assurance from bishops that he won't be excommunicated, his spokesman said Tuesday.

Public debate over family planning has simmered again in this predominantly Catholic country after President Benigno Aquino III recently expressed support for the right to contraception. A church official threatened to launch civil disobedience protests, and reports circulated that the bishops might expel Aquino from the church.

On Monday, Aquino sat with the bishops over lunch at the presidential palace. The discussion was "very pleasant" with both sides agreeing to continue the dialogue, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told reporters Tuesday.

It was not clear that any differences were immediately settled but the four bishops, led by Nereo Odchimar, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, denied there was any plan to excommunicate Aquino, Lacierda said.

Aquino "explained his position on responsible parenthood and (that) he's not siding with any method," Lacierda said.

The church's opposition to government funding for contraceptives was not discussed, Lacierda said, but he expressed relief that "lines are now open."

Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, who was at the meeting, said no debate took place on contentious issues with both sides exchanging ideas "in an atmosphere of trust-building" and backing the need for strengthening public education on "responsible parenthood."

Aside from birth control, the talks touched on the economy and poverty, she said.

Officials refused to discuss further details of the meeting.

The issue of artificial contraception — which is opposed by the Vatican — is a delicate topic in Philippine politics. Elected officials tend to avoid it, even though Philippine law is generally considered to protect a couple's right to use birth control.

Philippine church officials have argued that contraception is a type of abortion, which is banned by the country's 1987 constitution.

Aquino broke that customary silence last month during a forum with Filipino Americans while on a trip to the U.S., where he suggested his administration would be willing to distribute contraceptives to poor couples who couldn't afford them.

Church leaders lashed out at Aquino, expressing disappointment and urging him to emulate his mother, pro-democracy icon and late President Corazon Aquino, who backed the church's stance.

Proponents of contraception, however, have argued that rapid population growth and high fertility rates worsen the Philippines' crushing poverty.

In a rare act of defiance, a prominent Manila historian and tour guide disrupted Mass at the capital's main cathedral two weeks ago to protest the clergy's opposition to contraception. Carlos Celdran was arrested and freed a day later on 6,000 peso ($138) bail.

The church has proven its ability to successfully intercede in politics. The bishops mobilized protests that toppled late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and President Joseph Estrada in 2001 over alleged corruption.

In recent years, the church has spearheaded opposition to a reproductive health bill that calls for contraceptives to be provided in government hospitals and sex education to be taught in public schools. The bill is pending in the House of Representatives.

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