18/05/2011 3:23PM

The president says he is ready to face excommunication from the Catholic Church for advocating free access to condoms. A boxing champion says he is the best example why contraceptives should never be allowed.

After simmering for months, a wide-ranging and acrimonious debate over government-funded access to contraceptives in the Philippines has entered the country’s Congress.

The issue pits the powerful and conservative Catholic establishment, which says contraceptives are as sinful as abortions, against reformers who want more openness about condoms and other birth control in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation to slow population growth and help prevent disease.

The reproductive health bill introduced Tuesday in the House of Representatives would require the government to provide information on family planning methods, make contraceptives available free of charge and introduce reproductive health and sexuality classes in schools.

President Benigno Aquino III, still widely popular a year after a landslide election victory, has backed artificial birth control even if it means going against the dominant Catholic church. He said last month he was ready to face the consequences and if necessary risk excommunication.

“I have been taught in school, which was a Catholic institution, that the final arbiter really is our conscience,” Aquino told reporters Wednesday. “We are not looking for a fight with the church. This is on the record. I have invited them many times so that we can have discussions, and we have focused on areas where we can agree on.”

Supporters believe the measure will slow the Philippines’ rapid population growth that some believe contributes to the country’s crushing poverty. About a third of the country’s 94 million people live on $1 a day.

Church leaders have lashed out at Arroyo and mobilized a formidable public campaign to defeat the bill, with some bishops threatening to launch civil disobedience protests.

The World Health Organization says condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV/AIDS. About 1.4 million people are infected in the Asia-Pacific region, more than double the number 10 years ago.

Condoms also are a protection against unwanted pregnancies while abortion remains illegal in the Philippines. Women are left with little choice other than back-alley clinics, where an estimated 560,000 of them seek abortions involving crude and painful methods every year, according to a report by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

About 90,000 women in the Philippines suffer from abortion complications and an estimated 1,000 die each year, said the report, published last year.

Influential bishops have blocked family planning bills in the past by arguing that they would erode moral values and encourage promiscuity and early pregnancies.

“Sex is not a game that should be taught to children along with the use of condoms supposedly to avoid disease,” Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales told a crowd of 40,000 people assembled in the capital two moths ago in one of the biggest such rallies yet.

Instead, he called for abstinence.

One of bill’s opponents is the Philippine boxing star, Rep. Manny Pacquiao. He said he never would have been born, and never have become an international champion, if his parents practiced birth control.

“God said go forth and multiply. He did not say go and have just one or two children,” Pacquiao said Tuesday after meeting with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who is in favor of the bill, called Pacquiao a “fundamentalist” and said he was interpreting the Bible literally.

Rep. Edcel Lagman, one of the bill’s main proponents, said the opposition mainly comes from the church hierarchy, not from ordinary citizens of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

Independent opinion polls in the last several years have showed strong public support for the measure.