MANILA, OCTOBER 16, 2010 (STAR) By Delon Porcalla - President Aquino has started discussing the issue of family planning with leaders of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), a Palace spokesman said yesterday.

Mr. Aquino, who has declared he prefers to leave the choice of birth control to couples, had lunch with members of the CBCP last Monday at Malacañang.

“It’s a sign that both sides are open for further dialogue. It was a pleasant dialogue where the President had a lunch meeting with the bishops,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told a briefing.

During the meeting, Mr. Aquino reiterated his pro-choice stance on the issue of contraception. The Catholic bishops, in turn, reassured him that he is not in danger of being excommunicated.

“The President explained that he is not favoring a particular side,” Lacierda said. “It will lead to further dialogues.”

Present during the meeting were Presidential Management Staff head Julia Abad, Health Secretary Enrique Ona, Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, Tandang Bishop Nereo Odchimar, Archbishops Ricardo Vidal of Cebu, Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, and Chito Tagle of Imus, Cavite.

An official of the CBCP, who requested anonymity, said the meeting was not yet a formal discussion on the Church’s opposition to the Reproductive Health (RH) bill but a courtesy meeting with the President.

After the lunch meeting, the 11 members of the CBCP Permanent Council held a meeting on the bill from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Early this month, the CBCP called a ceasefire on their criticism to the RH bill to defuse the tension with Malacañang.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said other religious groups should be included in the dialogue on family planning.

“It is not only the Catholics that should be heard. As I understand, our Muslim brothers also have a stand on the issue,” she said. “We will look into it if they also want to open a dialogue with President Aquino.”

The Catholic Church, which has a following of around 85 million nationwide, has so far been the most vocal in opposing the passage of the RH bill because it promotes both natural and artificial family planning.

Around 10 percent of the country’s population belong to the Muslim minority while the remaining five percent is divided into other religious sectors, among them the Iglesia ni Cristo, Aglipayan and Baptist groups.

Artificial contraception is a sensitive issue in Philippine politics because of the Church’s proven ability to intercede in politics. Because of this, politicians seeking reelection bend to pressures to refrain from passing laws that contradict Church teachings.

The Church argues that contraception is a form of abortion. Proponents of contraception, however, have argued that rapid population growth and high fertility rates worsen the poverty in the country.

Since the post-Marcos era, especially during the administration of former President Corazon Aquino, a devout Catholic, no law on reproductive health was passed.

In recent years, the Church has spearheaded the opposition to a reproductive health bill that calls for contraceptives to be provided in government hospitals and sex education to be taught in public schools. The bill is pending in the House of Representatives.

“There are certain moral dimensions to the issue of the RH bill and certainly you cannot stop them (Catholic Church) from doing so,” Lacierda said.

“We still believe, again, that our position is for responsible parenthood . We believe that the parents are the ultimate decision-makers after being informed of the various choices for family planning. ” - With Evelyn Macairan, AP

Palace: P21-billion cash transfers to push through By Jess Diaz (The Philippine Star) Updated October 16, 2010 12:00 AM Comments (16)

MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang is renewing its pitch for a P21-billion program to benefit the “poorest of the poor,” appealing to Congress to keep the funds intact.

“The conditional cash transfer (CCT) program of the Aquino administration is timely, responsive and a substantial improvement of the existing program,” Budget Secretary Florencio Abad told reporters on the sidelines of the House budget debates.

“Our CCT program is timely because it seeks to enable the Philippines to comply with its Millennium Development Goal commitments in 2015, where it is now lagging behind in two of eight indicators,” he said.

“It is responsive because it targets directly the poor households and addresses severe reversals in key social indicators such as universal elementary education and maternal health care,” he pointed out.

“Finally, it is an improvement because it is more comprehensive: Beyond CCT, the program comes with substantial investments in basic education, child immunization, and maternal health and public health services,” he added. The CCT program aims to give financial assistance of up to P1,400 a month to poor families provided they comply with certain conditions like seeing to it that their children go to school and they attend family development sessions.

It targets 2.3 million beneficiaries next year and up to four million by the end of President Aquino’s term in 2016.

“The CCT is one of the few effective programs we inherited from the past administration. It is not timely, relevant and responsible to expand the program but also to tie its implementation with meaningful investments in education and healthcare services,” he said.

It has come under criticism from an increasing number of House members, including former president and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who started the program two years ago.

This year, the dole-out fund has an appropriation of P10 billion.

Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla, one of the critics of the planned dole-outs, said the cash assistance would only promote mendicancy and would not really solve the problem of hunger and poverty.

The government should instead create jobs for the poor and the jobless and develop the countryside, where most of the poor live, he said.

Criticisms against the dole-outs have twice held up the approval of the proposed P34.3-billion 2011 budget of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), the agency that implements the CCT program.

However, the House was scheduled last night to approve the DSWD outlay, which represents a 123-percent increase from this year’s level of P15.4 billion.

“We have already spent two nights on this. That’s already enough. We will put this to a vote before we approve the P1.645-trillion 2011 appropriations program of the President,” Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II told reporters yesterday.

He said the President’s budget proposal would be passed “even if we have to work overtime.” Abad said that aside from the CCT program, the Aquino government has a “complete and comprehensive package of liberating indigent households from poverty.”

“The 2011 Reform Budget provides funding to significantly address resource gaps in basic education, and to provide maternal healthcare facilities and immunization services, especially in the countryside,” he said.

According to Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman, the CCT program would have beneficiaries in all provinces except Batanes, home province of the Abads.

“In Batanes, none of the households passed our criteria for the poorest of the poor,” she told congressmen. – With Aurea Calica

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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