Friday, October 15, 2010

President Benigno Aquino and the Catholic Church

WHEN a Filipina secretly gave birth on an airliner last month and dumped the infant in a rubbish bin, the country’s powerful Catholic bishops rightly led an outcry of condemnation. (Happily, the baby survived.) But when President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino then vowed to take steps to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that can lead to such horrors, by distributing contraceptives to poor Filipinos who wish to use them, the bishops were less reasonably incensed.

Some threatened a campaign of civil disobedience against a mooted “reproductive health” bill, which would force the government to promote the use of contraceptives. Though they are legal in the Philippines, previous governments have been wary of pushing them for fear of upsetting the church. Given its political influence—80% of Filipinos are Catholic and the church’s call for civil disobedience in 1986 helped overthrow the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos—many consider Mr Aquino’s bold move to be suicidal.

Others see it as a sign that he has at last identified an important issue to make his own. Since taking office in June, he has proposed scant new legislation and promised little. His speeches are filled with platitudes and swipes at his unpopular predecessor, Gloria Arroyo-Macapagal. Nor is Mr Aquino obviously interested in foreign affairs; he is a reluctant flyer and has cancelled several trips abroad. “He’s not a statesman,” sniffs one Asian diplomat.

But if Mr Aquino seems ready to confront the church on this issue, he has tiptoed around a disaster that took place in August after a disgraced former police officer hijacked a tourist bus in Manila. In a bungled rescue attempt, the hijacker killed eight tourists from Hong Kong before he, too, was killed. An official inquiry into the tragedy identified many blunders in the government’s handling of the incident, and recommended that criminal or disciplinary action be taken against culpable officials. They allegedly included Manila’s mayor, an Aquino loyalist, and the city’s police chief—they went out for dinner together just before the gunman went berserk. They also ignored a presidential order to use an elite police commando unit to storm the bus; a local SWAT team was given the job and made a hash of it.

Mr Aquino’s government, which is packed with people whose main qualification is their loyalty to his family, has not escaped the finger-pointing. Rico Puno, the deputy interior minister, who also served President Corazon Aquino, the incumbent’s mother, was among those blamed for the debacle. Yet Mr Aquino has ruled out prosecuting any official; Mr Puno will face no sanction.

If Mr Aquino really is serious about facing down the outraged bishops on birth control, he will need all his loyal friends. For this is a daunting prospect. Yet the president has some advantages, if he would only choose to use them. He has a six-year mandate and is popular. Filipinos like his squeaky clean image and his family’s political record. Uncontrolled population growth is widely acknowledged to be a serious problem, moreover. According to a recent opinion poll, 64% of the electorate would support a politician who promoted “modern methods” of family planning. If Mr Aquino would take this as a vote of confidence in his nascent stand, he could do lasting good.
The Economist

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