Debating population

Of the many problems the President ignored in her last State of the Nation Address, the most glaring perhaps is the population growth. Ms Arroyo’s silence on this issue is not unexpected.  From the moment she assumed the presidency in 2001, population growth became a non-issue.  So when Malacanang says it welcomes a debate on population policy, we know it’s not serious.

The remnants of past programs to lower the country’s alarming birth rate all but vanished under the present administration’s strategy of benign neglect. The national government used the devolution of health functions to local government units as the occasion to erase population from its own advocacy list.  Whereas the Department of Health champions programs like child immunization and SARS, favoring these with resources and sustained attention, it has left the family planning program to fight for its dwindling share of the health budget of every city and province.

I think all thinking Filipinos agree that the problem is not the size of our population per se.  The problem is that, given the present state of our economy, too many Filipino children are being born to hunger, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy.  They agree that something must be done about it, but they disagree on what needs to be done now to address this problem.  Mass poverty is the other name of this state of affairs.

At the societal level, poverty is partly due to the slow growth of the economy and partly to the unequal distribution of resources. Those who emphasize the need to develop the economy first tend to look at high population growth as a problem.  Those who stress the need to effect some kind of redistribution of wealth do not see population growth as a problem; they see the lack of opportunity and hopelessness arising from social inequality as the problem.  Yet these are not mutually exclusive positions.  Limiting the size of families may contribute to economic growth.  But by itself economic growth does not solve poverty.  And conversely, social redistribution cannot be a meaningful solution to poverty without some level of economic development.

I believe that, for societies like ours, the lessons from these two approaches are inescapable.  We cannot take the road to sustained economic development at this point without adopting a clear national resolve to bring down our population growth rate. Likewise, we cannot hope to abolish mass poverty, or even begin to motivate our people to plan their families, unless the government makes a firm decision to actively support their basic needs for jobs, education, housing and health care.

Our problem is that the government has failed our people in both respects.  We neither have a population policy nor a program of redistribution to meet basic needs.  I attribute this to the unnecessary hardening of ideological or moral positions, which no doubt is linked to short-term political interests.

By whatever label it is referred to – whether “responsible parenthood” or “family planning” – our goal, I think, is pretty clear.  It is to instill in our people the need to think of every child they bring out into the world as a serious responsibility, not only to the child but to society as a whole.  On the part of the state, the goal is to actively support Filipino parents by providing all the information and assistance they need to plan their families according to their conscience and belief. This includes information and support for both natural and artificial methods.

What has complicated the attainment of this objective, however, is the dispute over the proper role of the state in achieving the constitutional goal of responsible parenthood.  Catholic leaders accused the government of leaning towards a “contraceptive culture” and promoting sexual promiscuity.  They pronounced many artificial methods used by government as “abortifacients” disguised as contraceptives. They said that the aggressive pursuit of the government’s population program violated many of the rights of families enshrined in Art. XV of the Constitution.  These objections found a sympathetic ear in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who publicly professed to being a “catolico cerrado” and therefore conservative on population issues.

The net result of this reversal was not a simple change of emphasis from artificial to natural family planning but to an almost total abandonment of the population program.  Without national government support, the program was bound to collapse.  Neither the local governments nor the individual families of the poor were inclined to prioritize expenditures for condoms, IUDs and contraceptive pills, over other medical supplies.  Sex education aimed at discouraging early pregnancies and marriages lost its urgency.

The current proposals for a two-child policy and for denial of access to public medical services to mothers on their third or fourth pregnancy may reflect the sense of urgency with which thoughtful legislators view the population problem. But all these will be resolutely opposed as violations of basic rights of the family that our Constitution guarantees.  Instead of stimulating a reasoned debate on population, they may provoke the kind of instinctive conservatism that has set back all efforts to confront the population issue.  The idea for a debate on population is to arrive at an acceptable strategy, not to rehearse a moral war.