The Supreme Court in the Philippines yesterday approved a birth control law, in a major defeat for the Catholic Church.
The legislation enables government health centres to distribute free condoms and contraceptive pills and have sex education taught in schools without fear of prosecution.
The court had deferred implementation of the law following its passage in December 2012 after church groups questioned its constitutionality.
In a country where more than 80 per cent of a population of about 97 million is Roman Catholic, the Church’s opposition to the law effectively blocked its passage for 13 years.
Church leaders said they feared it would lead to an increase in the number of women seeking abortions.
The Philippines has one of the highest birth rates in Asia, at 24.98 per 1,000 head of population in 2012.
“The reproductive health law is not unconstitutional,” Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te yesterday told a jubilant crowd at the tribunal’s compound in Baguio City, where the justices are holding their summer session.
However, he said the court declared at least eight provisions of the law to be unconstitutional, including one intended to punish reproductive health providers who failed, or refused, to spread information about the law’s services and programmes.
Opponents of the law get 15 days to appeal, Mr Te added.
“The Supreme Court decision is a victory for the Filipino people,” said Kaka Bag-ao, a left-wing politician and principal sponsor of the law.
“It is incomplete, but it is a historic victory nonetheless. For as long as the state is still mandated to implement a reproductive health programme, we still won.”
Philippine church officials said they were disappointed at the decision.
In a statement, Bishop Socrates Villegas, head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said: “The Church must continue to uphold the sacredness of human life, to teach always the dignity of the human person and to safeguard the life of every human person from conception to natural death.
“I encourage our Catholic faithful to maintain respect and esteem for the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has decided on the reproductive health issue based on existing laws.”
Campaigners have warned of potential civil obedience following the court ruling.
The Catholic Church has played a significant role in Philippine political life and continues to wield influence over the population.
In 2012, Philippines president Benigno Aquino signed into law a bill providing for free access to contraception and family planning.
Supporters said that law would reduce poverty and maternal mortality in a country with the highest birth rate in the region.
The Roman Catholic Church repeatedly tried to block the bill.
The country’s Congress failed to pass the measure several times before giving it final approval.
Condoms are widely sold in the Philippines, but at a price that many people have said they could not afford.
Many maternity hospitals are struggling to cope with the number of births, and the United Nations appealed to the country’s leaders earlier this year to pass the family planning bill.
A government health survey in 2011 found the maternal mortality rate had risen by 36 per cent between 2006 and 2010.