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Teenage Pregnancy, Sexuality Education, and Clericalism

The number of teenage pregnancies in the Philippines has become a cause for national concern. In 2019, the Philippine Statistical Authority recorded 180,916 live births among adolescents aged 10 to 19 in 2019. This is equivalent to 495 births a day. The rate of increase of teenage pregnancies has been rising for the last nine years. The Commission on Population estimated that minors would lead 133,000 families by the end of 2021. Pregnancy among teenagers has a severe impact on the life and health of young persons and their families. Teenage mothers are most likely to drop out of school and not seek further education to take care of their children. This interruption of schooling will deprive young mothers of the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to have an adequate livelihood to support their families, reinforcing the cycle of poverty that affects many of them. Early pregnancy also carries the dangers of birth complications, raising the risk of maternal and infant mortality. Pandemic lockdowns increase the possibility of repeat pregnancies for teenage mothers. The government made the prevention of teenage pregnancy a top priority. In June, the President signed an Executive Order, EO #141, to implement anti-teenage pregnancy policies supported by government funds.

One contributory factor in teenage pregnancy prevalence is the low age of consent, legally set at 12 years old since 1930. The Philippine Senate and Congress have recently approved bills raising the age of consent to 16 years old. The legislature will send a consolidated bill to the President for final approval. While raising the age of consent will allow young people to engage in consensual sex at 16 years old, Philippine law still requires written parental permission to access contraceptives if they are minors (below 18). To expect young people to ask their parents for written permission to buy contraceptives is unrealistic. There is a call to adjust the age for young people to access contraceptives without parental permission to match the age of consent. This will be a difficult task because of expected strong objections from the Catholic Church against expanding contraceptive access for young people. With national elections scheduled in 2022, lawmakers are not inclined to engage the bishops’ conference in another debate over contraception after the contentious decade-long battle between the Church and the government on reproductive health legislation before the passage of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012.

A more critical issue related to teenage pregnancies is the lack of comprehensive sexuality education in schools. EO #141 calls for the immediate implementation of the provision in the Reproductive Health Act that requires the creation and implementation of age- and development-appropriate reproductive health education for public schools. The church hierarchy strongly objects to any state-mandated sexuality education, insisting on the right of parents to decide on the education of children. The bishops feared that government-sponsored sexuality education that includes lessons on contraception and safe sex would lead to promiscuity and pre-marital sex among young people. The bishops want parents to be the primary educators of their children on sexual matters. However, the bishops do not consider most parents’ inability, discomfort, and avoidance of any discussion of sex with their children. Frank conversations about sex in a Filipino household rarely happens. The bishops’ insistence that parents should bear the burden of sexuality education is both culturally insensitive and improbable. The bishops have not provided any instructions or guidance on how parents should speak to their children about sexual values and conduct. The hierarchy’s efforts to block the implementation of sexuality education in public schools reflect the Church’s avoidance of any realistic discussion of sexuality with young people.

The bishops are aware of the rising number of teenage pregnancies in the country, but they have not accepted any responsibility for contributing to the problem. Public statements by the clergy blame teenage pregnancies on the availability of contraceptives, the lack of value formation in families, and the “failure” of the Reproductive Health Act. Civil authorities and reproductive health advocates blame the obstructionist stance of the Church’s leadership against sexuality education in schools that hinders the capacity of Filipino youth to make informed decisions about sexual activity.

The Church’s denial of any responsibility for contributing to the problem of teenage pregnancies is a result of pervasive clericalism enabled by a culture of deference to clergy and an idealized view of the Philippines as a Catholic nation. In his essay, “People of God, People of the Nation: Official Catholic Discourse on Nation and Nationalism,” Jose Mario Francisco analyzed the statements of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines on nationhood. He drew out an underlying “imaginary of the Philippines as a Catholic nation” from their documents.[1]  The bishops’ statements identified being “Filipino” with being a Catholic, even if twenty percent (over 20 million) of the population belong to other religious traditions and many Catholics do not agree with or follow church teachings. The fact that the country has a majority catholic population embolden the bishops’ conference to presume that it can dictate what is best for all Filipinos without considering empirical data or voices that disagreed with them. Their long history of wielding a disproportionate influence on the country’s political life gives them the audacity to insist that the government bend national policies to conform with catholic moral teachings. Clericalism convinces our church leaders that they are always right on matters of sexuality. This form of pastoral blindness prevents the country’s bishops from adequately considering the complicated lives of young people who struggle to make responsible life decisions.

This year, the Philippines celebrates the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity and the start of the “Year of the Amoris Laetitia Family.” This will be an appropriate time for church leaders to make a humble and honest examination of their pastoral responses to the challenges faced by the youth. If they do so, they will realize that behind all the institutional hubris and pride, they have failed to be good shepherds to countless young people affected by early pregnancy. May our bishops hear the Spirit’s call to repentance, conversion, and decisive action so that they can be freed from the blinders of clericalism and be able to respond sensitively to the needs of our country’s youth.

[1] Jose Mario C. Francisco, “People of God, People of the Nation: Official Catholic Discourse on Nation and Nationalism,” Philippine Studies 62, Nos. 3-4 (2014) 341-375.