MANILA Women from three slum communities in Manila asked the appeals court on Wednesday to allow them access to contraceptives in public clinics, revoking a local law that bans condoms and pills.
In 2000, the capital's mayor issued an order stopping doctors, nurses and other health workers from promoting and distributing contraceptives, instructing them to teach only the natural method of family planning.
"We want to decide for ourselves how many children we would have, and not the government to tell us how to do it," Lourdes Osil, a mother of six, told reporters after her lawyers asked the court to declare the seven-year-old local law unconstitutional.
"We were denied not only access to contraceptives, but even our rights guaranteed in the constitution to make a free choice were also ignored and violated."
Home to an estimated 89 million people, the largely Catholic Philippines has one of the fastest-growing populations in Asia with around 2 million babies born every year.
Under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a devout Catholic who relies on the support of politically powerful bishops, the central government promotes natural family planning methods such as abstinence when the woman is ovulating.
Emma Monzaga, one of the petitioners, said she was getting injections once every three months to prevent her from becoming pregnant, but was told on her third visit to a public clinic that the treatment was no longer available.
"I was asked to go somewhere else to get the shots because the city hall has stopped funding the family planning program," Monzaga said, adding her family could not afford to spend extra for contraceptives.
"We used to get it for free. It's becoming a burden because we have to eat and send our six children to school."
She said she has given up the idea of saving some money from her husband's 300 pesos ($7) daily wage as a construction worker to pay for the vaccines because of rising cost of basic needs.
STRICTER THAN THE POPE
Gerry Cruz, a medical doctor and a member of the Philippine Family Planning Organization, said the women had been placed at risk due to the city's decision to deny them access to contraceptives.
"We're supporting these women's petition not just from the legal point of view, but more on the health aspects because we saw a study showing an alarming increase in maternal deaths in Manila due to multiple pregnancies," Cruz said.
Cruz said he feared the country's population could reach 150 million in the next 20 years if government failed to promote an effective population management program.
"We're not in favor of a population reduction policy, only sound management to keep the birth rate from growing faster than our economy," he said.
"Our biggest fear is our pro-life groups are much stricter than the Pope. And our local politicians are too afraid to cross swords with our very conservative Catholic church."
While the rich are able to avail of artificial birth control in private clinics, the poor have been reliant on the U.S. government agency USAID, which has been the biggest supplier of contraceptives in the Philippines for the past 30 years.
But USAID has started phasing out supplies and plans to end the rest of its donation program in 2008. The agency has said its phase-out is in line with Manila's goal of self-reliance in family planning.
To deal with the financial and emotional strain of unwanted pregnancies, around half a million women are estimated to have abortions each year despite the procedure being illegal and strictly taboo in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Many die because of abortions performed in backroom clinics or by untrained nurses and quacks.
Sylvia Estrada Claudio, another doctor and head of a local non-government group helping the petitioners, said it took them nearly eight years to seek a court order to revoke the local legislation because the women feared political reprisals.
"We have a new mayor who has a more open mind in other forms of family planning methods," she said, expressing hope the old law would be revoked.
(Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jerry Norton)