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Poverty, pregnancy and the Pope

Pope in the Philippines

There is 'no need to breed like rabbits' the Pope said after his trip to the Philippines - but the country's dire poverty was hidden from him during his trip. jojo nicdao under a Creative Commons Licence

Rolando isn’t going to retire just yet. On a horse-drawn carriage, the 70-year-old takes tourists, local and foreigners alike, around the famed Luneta Park, the largest public park in Manila, the Philippine capital. On good days, he makes 700 to 1,000 pesos ($15-22).

He gets sick a lot, with a persistent cough that may be asthma developed from the hair of his horse, Rambo.

But there’s no rest for Rolando. He has eight children, the youngest of whom is 18, the eldest 48. His wife gave birth almost every year over a span of at least one decade.

He used to work as a seaman, cooking for an international crew as the ship went around the world. In that job, he earned $800 a month, enough to be able to raise all his eight children well. They finished secondary school, and if he had earned more, he would have been able to send them to the university, ‘but high school is okay. They are all okay. They have their own lives now.’

Eight is a lot, but manageable, says Rolando. He still needs to work so he and his wife can survive.

Did he hear what the Pope said about having a lot of children after his recent visit to the Philippines?

‘That we are like rabbits? Yes, I heard that but, no, we are not like rabbits,’ he responds.

The Pope’s message, Rolando believes, is only for those who cannot manage big families. ‘But I could and I did. We are okay.’

Pope Francis came to the Philippines for a five-day visit from 15-19 January. He went to the Presidential Palace, to Tacloban, which was devastated by Super Typhoon Yolanda more than a year ago, to a cathedral in Manila, to a Catholic university; and he celebrated a mass at the Luneta Park where six million people came to listen.

The Pope said many things. He criticized corruption, social inequality and injustice. And irresponsible parenthood.

Speaking to journalists on the plane back to Rome, Pope Francis said Catholics should not breed like rabbits, all the while defending the Church’s ban on artificial birth control.

‘Some think that – excuse the language – in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits,’ Pope Francis said. ‘No. Responsible parenthood.

He was asked what he thinks about the Catholic Church’s position against artificial contraception and how this contributes to population growth, which in turn, has been blamed for poverty.

But perhaps what Pope Francis did not see is that this is a country of 94 million people, where a quarter of the population live in poverty or on less than a dollar a day; and that the Church’s stance against artificial contraception and abortion has left many women struggling with unwanted pregnancies.

That in the poorest villages, in the shanty homes found in dark alleys and densely populated slum areas, it is a reality that husbands, usually unemployed or struggling with odd jobs, drink their worries away before going home to their wives, drunk and careless.

They caress their women in the small hours, when all the other children are already asleep on the dirty floor, and they make love – as they did last night and the night before – oblivious to their wives’ body temperature or when the first day of her menstrual cycle was. There’s no counting, no waiting, no care at all.

Government statistics tell the same story.

One in three births in the Philippines is either unwanted or mistimed.

More than half (53 per cent) of births to women age 40 to 44 in the five years preceding a 2008 survey were unplanned; 84 per cent of such births were unwanted.

‘Among women age 15-19, 31 per cent of births were unplanned, of which only 21 per cent were unwanted. These findings are based on the responses of women age 15 to 49 years to the question as to whether each of their births in the five years preceding the survey was wanted at the time of birth, mistimed or wanted but a later time, or not wanted at all,’ the statistics office said in its latest report.

The ideal number of children for 40 per cent of women is two.

But the Catholic Church has made the same arguments, again and again. Natural methods exist, it has said repeatedly.

It has blocked the Reproductive Health Law, passed in 2012, which mandates state spending for contraceptive pills.

Perhaps this is what the Pope did not see in this country; or what the government did not want him to see. That it has failed to provide enough jobs for its people despite trumpeting ‘stellar economic growth’.

Many Filipinos – Catholics or not – may ‘breed like rabbits’ because with no jobs or money for school, they have nothing else to do.

And one of the government’s responses to poverty was to hide some 500 street children and their parents in a far-away resort during the Pope’s visit.

Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman said in a Time magazine article that this was done so they would not be ‘vulnerable to the influx of people coming to witness the Pope’. 

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