Philippine Court Delays Law on Free Contraceptives for Poor

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MANILA -- The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily halted a landmark law that would provide free contraception to poor women.

In a 10-to-5 ruling, the court froze for 120 days when the law could take effect. It was passed in December after a ferocious national debate that pitted the Roman Catholic Church against the country's president, Benigno S. Aquino III.

Supporters and opponents of the legislation will argue their cases before the Supreme Court on June 18, said a court spokesman, Theodore Te. He added that the ruling on Tuesday did not reflect on the merits of either side.

The decision indicates that the Supreme Court is seriously considering the more than half a dozen petitions filed against the law, said Harry Roque, a constitutional expert with the University of the Philippines.

That does not necessarily mean the measure is likely to be ruled unconstitutional, he added. The Supreme Court has previously delayed laws that it later validated.

"The law will be carefully examined in court as it was when it was debated in Congress," Mr. Roque said.

Birth control is legal and widely available in the Philippines, but it is out of the reach of many poor women and those living in provincial areas. The reproductive health bill would provide free or subsidized contraceptives to poor women and would mandate sex education in schools.

Opponents, principally Catholic organizations, have argued that the bill promotes a culture of promiscuity that offends the country's values and would lead to abortion, which remains illegal in the Philippines.

The petitions filed in the Supreme Court argue that the measure violates a clause in the Philippine Constitution that states that "no person shall be deprived of life" without due process of law.

The presidential spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, said Tuesday that the government would defend the bill before the Supreme Court.

Feliciano Belmonte Jr., the speaker of the House of Representatives and a proponent of the measure, called the ruling a "temporary setback."

"I am hopeful the main issues will be deliberated on so that these can be resolved as soon as possible," he said.

Representative Edcel C. Lagman, a sponsor of the reproductive health law, popularly called the R. H. law, said it did not mandate the use of contraceptives by families opposed to them for religious reasons.

"The accusation that the R. H. law is offensive to religious freedom is a patent aberration," he said. "The act is replete with provisions upholding the freedom of religion and respecting religious convictions."

The bill was set to take effect on March 31, Easter, which raised more protests from the Catholic Church.

"That was unintended," Madeleine R. Valera, the assistant secretary of the Department of Health, told The Philippine Daily Inquirer. "We really did not see that. We were having a hearing when someone pointed it out, and we were like, 'Oops!' "

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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