Philippines' Pro-Life Option Vindicated

Rosa Linda G. Valenzona
copyright 2007
Reproduced with Permission

The Global Family Planning Industry has long considered the Philippines as that Asian upstart that for resisting to accept a family planning program. In the past thirty years it has poured money and resources to influence its Government and Legislators to enact a family planning program. Whence does this resistance come from? How has it benefited the Philippines?

During the uproar that ensued after the 1968 publication of Pope Paul VI encyclical, Humanae Vitae the Philippine clergy was one of the few who collectively wrote Pope Paul VI of their wholehearted support of his pro-life position. Many credit this as one of the most important reasons for the stalwartly pro-life stance that the Philippines has always maintained. Over the years the Philippine clergy has been by and large pro-life with a few exceptions and for this they are blamed for causing poverty. The current global demographic scenario is now vindicating the Philippines' pro-life stand although media reports continue to present the opposite. This study uses the population data provided by the UN World Population Prospects, 2006 Revision which can be downloaded from the UN website.

Population Growth

The Philippine population stood at 85 Million at mid-year 2005 - a tremendous leap from the 1.5 Million souls living in these islands in the first estimate made by Fr. Buzeta in 1799. In the 1930 population census the 7.6 Million count represented a growth of barely 6 Million over 130 years - or an annual compounded growth 1.5%. During the 15 year period 1950-1965 population grew at higher than 3%. But by 1970 this growth leveled off and went into a steady decline up to the present annual growth of 1.94%, NSCB's estimate for 2005.

The Philippines had its share of the world wide postwar baby boom when its CDR fell to 12.7 deaths per 1,000 while its CBR was 31.5 births per 1,000 in 1947 - a combined effect of upsurge of postwar pregnancies and better nutrition, improved housing, sanitary conditions and more hygienic practices. Although this benefited all ages, the mortality fall was mostly due improved child survival. In 1950-1960 infant mortality fell by almost 30% of the 1950 level when gains were made due to improved nutrition and dissemination of basic primary health care information.

Growth Momentum

This massive fall in child mortality caused growth to gain momentum during the 1950-1965 period. Children who survived to adulthood naturally swelled the ranks of the fertile population hence accounting for the impressive growth of the Female Population 15-49 age groups - with highest growth taking place in 1970-1980.

This increase in sheer numbers of the fertile population accelerated growth momentum during 1950-1975. This serves to correct the general impression that population explodes because people are breeding like rabbits! As a rule population growth becomes explosive when more childred survive to adulthood and increase the ranks of the fertile population.

This is obvious when one sees how fertility had fallen since 1950. Population continued to grow In spite of the fertility fall because there were simply more women to have babies. What makes the Phippines a singular case is that its fertility rate did not dive down as the case of other Asian countries - Singapore, Thailand and Hongkong. This dive decelerated their population growth, since the decline in births was sharp enough to neutralize the continued increase in their fertile population. Demographers have coined the term demographic dividend referring to the material benefits countries gain from a labor force unburdened by child support. Contending that this is what helped to launch development in these countries the family planning industry has continually harped on the Philippines' failure to bring down its fertility as the cause of its failure to reach the levels of development attained by its Asian neighbors causing Filipinos to suffer high incidence of poverty.

Fertility Trends

There are actually many factors behind this slower decline in Philippine fertility. Birth trends is a composite of two factors - the size of the reproductive population and its fertility. We have already seen how the falling mortality - improved child survival rates - reinforces the growth of the reproductive population. Mathematically it becomes apparent that slowing down population growth in the face of the growth momentum caused by increase in the sheer size of the reproductive population that fertility has to decline drastically. This would be necessary to nuetralize the accelerating impact of the growing fertile population. Other Asian countries achieved this through massive family planning.

This is evident in the intercountry comparison of contraceptive prevalence. UNDP HDR for 2005 indicates that over the period 1995-2002 62% of Singaporean women ages 15-49 were using contraceptives, 72% in Thailand and 86% in Hongkong. Sadly, in these countries contraception had become a lifestyle matter. On the other hand NCSO data show that married women in the Philippines who use contraception continue to be a minority and a substantial portion of them continue to use traditional methods. Statistics also show that many of those who desist from using contraceptives do so because they would like have children.

If contraception is not the cause how did fertility decline in the Philippines? Fertility behavior is a complex of biology, economics, cultural values, attitudes, opportunities, etc. Fertility data is difficult to collect and analyze. In order to make sense of the little data available a model will serve to illustrate the multiple factors that contribute to the fall in fertility. Consider the following life story of a typical Filipina:

  1. Assume that birth spacing last two years after each pregnancy. Each pregnancy will require 33 months (9 mos. + 24 mos. = 33 mos) to complete before the mother is ready for another baby.
  2. Since the woman's fertile period lasts 15 to 45 years old (30 years or 360 months) this gives a theoretical maximum of 10 pregnancies over the entire reproductive period.
  3. She then sets aside 6 years to study (4 year college course and roughly 2 years to prepare for a qualifying board exam etc.)
  4. Then she works for 10 years before she gets married.
  5. Upon marriage the couple decides to delay pregnancy for another 2 years
  6. Then her husband works abroad for 5 years.

We can use these assumptions to estimate the maximum number of pregnancies this woman could have given the socially accepted practices for birth spacing, etc by considering the impact on pregnancy by various factors such as access to education, labor force participation, and other economic factors such as opportunities to work abroad. The Table below maps out these possibilities and in the last column computes the percentage decline in TFR that can be attributed to each of the factors considered. Under these assumptions she will forego 82% of the theoretical maximum and end up having less than 2 pregnancies!

The above analytical results is confirmed by the following data:

a) Marrying Age: US AID funded Demographic and Health surveys1 provide data support these conclusions. Filipino women are delaying marriage. Though the the data is available for single year differences the slight rise is very telling. The steep rise from 1999 to 2000 indicate that this is speeding up. Since fertility sets in at age 15, getting married at 25 automatically takes off 10 years from her fertile years or an automatic reduction of 30% from the potential maximum pregnancies.

b) Age at first pregnancy: Another important factor is the rise in the age when Filipina women will bear their first child. UN data on live births by age of mother and by birth order covers the period 1998 to 2000 for the Philippines.2 Computed average age of mothers when they have their first baby when tabulated again confirm the rising trend.

c) Birth Spacing: Average birth spacing was also computed to be rising. The data shows that from 1990 to 1993 there is a significant increase in the duration of birth spacing from one year to another - roughly 5.7% over the 3 years. Again if this trend is extrapolated for the period 1993 to 2005 birth spacing could easily rise to 2.5 years.

d) Rising trend of celibacy: Another factor is the rising number of women who do not get married. UN data on civil status of women by age groups covers all the census years. The percentage of single women at age 35 and over (well over the average age Filipinas get married) is used as an indicator. This statistic is relatively stable for 30 years - 1950-1970 at 1.6%. Since then it has been rising up to 2.5% for 1990-1995. This is consisted with global trends.

e) Temporary separation of spouses: There is no data available to quantify this trend. However, there are about 10 Million Filipinos working abroad. The economically active population (ages 15-60) encompasses the fertile age group (ages 15-49). It is easily assumed that this would have a substantial impact on delayed or foregone pregnacies.

Impact on Age Structure

Demographic variables are systemic and therefore the impact of fertility decline is expected to reverberate throughout the system. In the first order this would be the age structure of the population. We have explained that for population growth to slow down a drastic fertlity fall is needed to counteract the continued rise in fertile population. When this fall is so drastic the birth cohorts (birth group) will shrink-this would mean a reduction in the percentage of young people.

However, there is another exogenous variable (coming from outside the system) that is also causing the age structure to change. Improved health care actually impacts on both extremes of the life cycle-the world experienced this in the reduction of infant mortality rates during the post-war period. We are now just experiencing the impact of improved health care on the reduction of adult mortality. The present generation of elderly are living longer becuase of better nutrition, lilving conditions and health care. This in itself is raising the relative proportion of the elderly population in both the developed and developing world.

Taking both factors together-shrinking of birth groups due to fertility decline and increased life expectancy of the elderly-we actually have two factors which will both increase the relative proportion of elderly in the population, thereby hastening ageing. One can conclude that a rapid decline in fertility mathematically will go hand in hand with ageing which unfortunately will be reinforced by longer living elderly of this generation.

Data from the UN World Population Prospects, 2006 Revision was used to examine the age structures of the countries under consideration. The graphs are color coded to separate the young, the working population and the elderly.

Singapore: Its Total Fertility rate now stands at 1.26. The median age of its population has now risen to 37.5 and the age structure shows the rise of the elderly population:

Hong Kong: It has an even lower Total Fertility Rate at .97 per woman. Its median age has risen to 39 and its age structure shows an even higher proportion of elderly. Its repartriation to China delays the crisis, but we all know China has its own problems.

Thailand: Though a late beginner Thailand succeeded in reducing its Total Fertility down to 2 children. Its median age is now 27.5 and the impact of this on its age structure is apparent.

Again one has to point out that due to the systemic nature of demography there is another variable affected on a 2nd order level. Once the shrinking birth cohorts grow up to reach the fertile age the fertile population will also start shrinking and the the combined effect of the low fertility rate and the shrinking fertile population will reinforce each other to bring about population implosion.

The tendency of UN demographic analysis to exaggerate the importance of population growth and population change is not without perils. These two variables fail to take into account a very important fact. Population growth can also be due to a fall in mortality-recall that infant mortality decline triggered the post-war population explosion. Thus even when the birth cohorts of many countries started to shrink their population growth continued to be positive, albeit at very low levels. The reason for the continued population growth is the fall in mortality among the elderly!

Arguing the Philippine Case

The vindication of the its pro-life choice is apparent once one looks at the comparable age structure of the Philippines. Even after 40 years of family planning its Total Fertility Rate continues to be 3.23. It remains a young population with a median age of 21.8.

The slowness of its fertility decline perserved the birth cohort from shrinking radically. This has preserved the healthy "triangular" configuration of its age structure. The healthy qualification is merited in that as long as this configuration persists its Labor Force will not decline - the size of the population retiring and joining the ranks of the elderly will always be smaller than the size of the population joining the ranks of the labor force. The Philippines will not be facing the inevitable social security crisis of the ageing populations.

What of its economic performance? Comparison of 2003 per capita GDP at US$ Purchasing Power Parity sadly shows the poor performance of the Philippines compared to its Asian neighbors. The Family Planning Industry has always blamed the Philippines poor economic performance on its recalcitrant attitude towards family planning. But off the cuff one can easily ennumerate three serious handicaps to the Philippine economy - the heavy burden of foreign debt servicing we faced in the late 80's after the Marcos Regime, the graft and corruption of our politicians, and gross economis mismanagement. Nevertheless in this period of slow growth the Philippines has sustained an over 5% GDP growth.3 Guess what is fueling this growth? Economists now admit that OFW remittances has steadily contributed to GDP growth for the past 5 years! Unable to enjoy a level economic playing field at home millions of Filipinos have gone abroad and it is their remittances that is keeping the economy afloat. This would not have been possible if the Philippines had opted to accept family planning the way its Asian neighbors did. There is another way of looking at it. Most developed countries have gradually evolved into a service economy their shrinking labor force pushes up their demand for migrant workers. The Philippines has precisely that pool of skilled migrant workers to push its economic growth by exporting services. To meet the requirements of the first world.


1 To monitor massive funding of family planning worldwide to achieve the policy goals of NSSM 200 US AID funds Demographic and Health Surveys in underdeveloped countries. [Back]

2 UN Demographic Yearbook [Back]

3 The Philippines: An Introductory Report, July 31, 2007, Romeo Bernardo and Marie-Christine Tang, Global Source, 641 Lexington Ave., 18th Floor New York. [Back]