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There are 100 million of us now

WELL, TO be precise, 99,900,177, according to one forecast. That makes our country the 12th most populous nation on earth. Ours is the fourth most crowded place on earth after India, Bangladesh and Japan (on a list that excludes such exceptional cases such as Monaco, Singapore and Malta.)

It is a staggering figure. President Aquino presides over a nation nearly double the number of Filipinos when his mother assumed power in 1986. Since 2008 when the Reproductive Health Bill was filed in Congress, there are 4 million more Filipinos. And while Congress debated on the bill, which would empower Filipinos to choose whether to have children or not, and going by surveys that 36 percent to 44 percent of births in the country are unwanted, there have been as many as 1.8 million unwanted births in the past three years.

Worse, it is the poor who mostly have these unwanted births, as they do not have access to contraceptive information and means. (How can a laborer earning P200 a day afford condoms sold at P30 per pack?) While Congress debated and the Catholic Church threatened fire and brimstone against its supporters, our country produced 1.8 million more poor Filipinos.

An ignorant argument would be that rich nations like the United States and Japan are bigger than ours, but still prosperous. But both countries were already large many decades ago, and they have gone through the so-called demographic transition, when prosperity results in the reduction of fertility rates, or the average number of living children a woman bears in her lifetime. Thus, the US population growth rate in the past five years is one percent; Japan’s is negative: -0.2 percent.

In contrast, our annual population growth rate from 2005 to 2010 of 1.9 percent is the second highest among the 12 biggest countries in the world, following Nigeria’s 2.3 percent, a country which is practically only moving now to the modern era. Just in case the connection between population and economic growth still isn’t clear, we are followed in this listing by Pakistan, 1.8 percent; Bangladesh, 1.7 percent; and India, 1.5 percent. The Philippines’ fertility rate from 2000 to 2010 was 3.4 percent, higher than any Asian country. Those with higher fertility rates are almost all poor African countries.

It is one of the massive weaknesses of the Philippine state—its failure to provide the means for Filipinos to control their lives by being able to choose in the most important decision in a couple’s life, which is having or not having children.

It is amazing how our intellectual elite pontificate on myriad reasons why our country is poor when one major reason is staring us in the face, a nightmare you see as you drive through any urban poor neighborhood teeming with toddlers: our unbridled population growth.

Why are wages low? Because we have so many workers that the law of supply and demand pushes down wages. Why is productivity low? Productivity is the result of mechanization, but why mechanize if wages are so low? (A crude example: Why put up a Vendo machine at the corner, when you can get five unemployed stambays to do the selling.)

Senior opinion writers often gush about a purportedly Philippine “Golden Age” during their time, when everything was all right. But our population in 1950 was just 21 million, a fifth of what it is today. Cursing the government as you commute through the horrific traffic in metropolitan Manila? The metropolis’ population is now 14 million. In 1950, it was 1.5 million.

It is amazing how a few top-notch economists, particularly those belonging to the Vatican’s vanguard, Opus Dei, can still argue in this day and age that there is no connection between population growth rates and economic well-being. Perhaps even as late as the 1980s, there was still such a debate. But the debate had been resolved, and there is now a universal consensus that uncontrolled population growth is a major factor in the continued poverty of poor nations. We are among the very few countries in the world whose governments as a matter of policy eschew a population program that provide contraceptives to the poor.

Rather, the debate now is over the neo-Malthusian thesis which claims that drastic actions, such as aiming for reduced population, are necessary to prevent an environmental Armageddon, as the earth’s resources are not enough even for the present global population.

But we’re centuries behind that debate. Our weltanschauung is still a medieval one in which the Catholic Church still dictates, or tries to dictate, major state policies, with the threat of eternal damnation and even worse, political instability. “Bishop slams land deal,” this paper’s banner headline on Monday screamed. Nowhere in the world except perhaps in the L’Osservatore Romano is a cleric’s statement given the highest news value.

It is the Catholic Church and its organizations that have been blocking the country from undertaking a full-blown population program, on grounds of pure dogma that contraceptives make up “a deliberate violation of the design God built into the human race.” Not in Italy where the Holy See is, not in Spain, the land of the conquistadores which converted to Catholicism a big part of the world, but only in the Philippines does the Church have such awesome influence over state policy.

The Church was certainly crucial in the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, which nudged us towards the democratic, modern era. But in many ways it has also kept us in a medieval world view that is responsible for much of our nation’s poverty.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer