News - Religiosity and Contraceptive Use among Filipino Youth

This article is an abridged version of the study on Religiosity and Contraceptive Use Among Filipino Youth by Jenna Mae L. Atun, a Communication Research graduate from the UP College of Mass Communication, and current graduate student at the UP School of Economics.

Population as an unresolved issue in the Philippines continues to attract various and usually opposing views among different sectors of society. The debate is not only whether there is indeed a population problem, but over the best means to address it. The Catholic Church and other religious groups have long maintained a strong position against the use of artificial contraceptives and in favor of natural family planning (NFP), citing various moral and ethical reasons. Economists and demographers meanwhile have long argued for a national population policy which allows a choice among both natural (modern) and artificial (traditional) methods of contraception (Pernia, 2007; UPSE, 2004). Despite the high unmet need in family planning, especially among the poorest (NSO, 2004) and the high clamor for budgetary support for modern methods of family planning (Pulse Asia, March 2007), the current administration still displays strong support for programs that favor only the use of NFP methods, which according to many is a policy owed to pressures from the Church.

The Church’s influence on government’s population policy is viewed from different perspectives. On the one hand, there are some who regard the Church’s active position on population and family planning (FP) as the main culprit for the government’s inability to manage the country’s population. On the other hand, there are some who claim that the influence of Church in politics and government, as well as in people’s decision making, is overstated. Within these different views, however, there has been little direct effort to empirically link religion and religiosity to use of contraceptives in the Philippines. In terms of evidence, the argument that the Church’s position on family planning directly influences people’s decisions on what FP method to use remains unsupported.

This paper seeks to examine if there is empirical evidence to the oft stated claim that religion influences individual decisions to practice family planning. By many accounts, 84% of Filipinos are Catholics and thus there is little variance in religious affiliation. There is however more variance in the degree to which people are religious. Hence, instead of religion per se, this paper focuses more on the extent to which a person is involved in religious activities, or what is referred to as religiosity. Using secondary analysis of nationally-representative data on Filipino youth, the study aims to find out if religiosity as measured by religious practices influences contraceptive use, more specifically the use of a specific type of method. Results of the study will hopefully shed light on the age-old idea that religion or religiosity is a significant factor in Filipinos’ FP decisions.

The Church and the State on family planning

The separation of the State and the Church, although explicitly stated in the Philippine Constitution, has traditionally not been followed. The Philippine government and politicians have always placed importance on the Church’s position on key political issues and events. In fact ours is a country characterized with a soft state and hard church (Pernia, 2007), so much so that in every political crisis that this country faces the Church, specifically the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), always has something important to say. Historically, the Church has also been in the forefront of many political movements, including the two people power revolutions in 1986 and in 2001 that resulted in the ouster of two presidents. During national elections, many candidates seek the endorsement of various religious groups as part of their campaign strategies.

The Catholic Church’s objection to the use of artificial forms of contraception is traced from the way the Chuch views human sexuality and morality. Sex is viewed in two ways--procreative (live-giving) and unitive (love-sharing)--and any act that interferes with the procreative potential of the sexual act is vehemently prohibited (Genilo, 2007; Genovesi, 2003). Although contemporary Church teachings already recognize that there is indeed a population problem, the Church only allows the use of natural family planning (NFP) methods in the context of “responsible parenthood”. Responsible parenthood means that parents have the responsibility to plan their family size, choose the most suitable method for birth spacing, and to provide sex education for their children without direct intervention from the State (Genilo, 2007). However, as Fr. Caroll (2007) observes, the Philippine Church has been more active in opposing contraception through political means instead of forming the consciousness of people on NFP methods. During President Fidel Ramos’s administration when use of artificial or modern methods of family planning was promoted, the Catholic Church was severely critical of the government.

Religion, religiosity and contraceptive use

Although the country is predominantly Catholic, recent YAFS3 results point to a declining proportion of Catholics among the young, from 87% in 1994 to only 84% in 2002, which may be due to the growing appeal of evangelical Christian faiths among the youth (Marquez & Galban, 2004). Islam remains the second most-affiliated religion with 7% of the population. In the household, religion is seen as familial more than personal, in which the family becomes an important agent in religious formation (Medina, 2001).

The impact of religion and religiosity in various attitudes and behaviors, especially of adolescents, has been subject to various examinations. While religiosity has been found to have a protective factor against risk behaviors such as sexual initiation and premarital sex (Lacson, et. al, 1997; Meier, 2003), as well as substance use (Wallace, et. al, 2007) among young people, there has been little work done to study the effect of religiosity on contraceptive use. Few notable foreign works on the link between religiosity and contraceptive use provide contradictory findings. While Studer and Thornton (1987) found that adolescents who regularly attend religious services were less likely to use an effective medical method of contraception than those who rarely attend church, Okun’s (2003) analysis of Jewish women’s contraceptive behavior found that contraceptive choices are determined largely by considerations unrelated to religious doctrine. In a reply to a critique of their earlier study, Studer and Thornton (1989) clarified that the impact of religiosity on contraceptive usage among adolescents is multi-dimensional and complex, and that it differs at different stages of decision-making. A recent study by David (2008) on rationalities of Filipinos regarding their contraceptive use also noted that the choice of a contraceptive method is more complex than what is found on the literature.

            In the Philippines, while religion is largely blamed for its dismal national population policy, little has been done examining the link between religion or religiosity and contraceptive use. This study aims to pave the way for more research efforts on this topic. It also aims to extend our understanding and knowledge of contraceptive behavior with the higher aim of arriving at a resolution among opposing groups that are sympathetic to the population issue.

Summary of Findings

The study aimed to provide empirical evidence for the link between religiosity and contraceptive use in the Philippines using data from the 2002 Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality Study (YAFS3). Only married males and females with ages 15 to 27 were included in the analyses but those who desire to have a child, and therefore would not use a contraceptive method, were excluded. Instead of religion or religious affiliation, the paper examined two aspects of religiosity--personal religiosity which is measured by church attendance, and familial religiosity which refers to involvement in religious activities with the family.

Contrary to popular belief, results of multivariate analyses reveal that the extent to which religiosity influences individual decisions to use contraceptives is not that strong. Both church attendance and familial religiosity have significant associations with some variables of use but are generally weak predictors of contraceptive use. Results indicate that use of contraception and the choice of a method are personal decisions that individuals make independently of their religiosity.

Analyses show that church attendance and familial religiosity relate differently with use of contraceptives. Church attendance is positively associated with use of traditional methods, which might give credence to the argument that those who attend church more frequently and who are more likely to know the Church’s positon against artificial forms of contraception, are more likely to choose a natural method of family planning.

Interestingly, familial religiosity has a positive association, albeit weak, with ever use, current use, and use of a modern method. As Marquez (2004) argued, stronger family connectedness and increase in parent-child communication decrease the likelihood of the young to engage in sexual risk-taking activities. Further, as David’s (2008) study showed, discussion of family planning with relatives is a significant predictor of intention to use a family planning method. Hence, the positive effect of familial religiosity on use may be explained not by the “religiosity” part, but by the “familial” part. Those with high familial religiosity are more likely to have families that are more connected and more open to each other, hence they are also more likely  to learn about information relating to sexuality and family planning.

How individuals view their religion’s position on contraception and how they think their religion will influence their decision to use contraceptives in the future have opposite effects on use. Understandably, the more a person thinks that religion approves of contraception, the more likely they are to use a form of contraception. In an opposite way but with weaker association, those who think that their future use of contraception will be influenced by their religion’ teachings, are more likely not to use any method at all. More than these factors however, general approval of contraceptives remains one of the strongest predictors of contraceptive use, more specifically the use of modern methods.

Consistent with previous studies’ findings, results here show the gender disparity on attitude and behavior regarding contraceptive use. At the same time that more married females than married males say their use of contraception is not influenced by their religion’s teachings, females are also more likely than the males to use a method of contraception, more specifically a modern method. While this indicates young women’s decisiveness when it comes to matters of family planning, it also indicates that young men should take more responsibility and be more participative in these matters. As observed by David (2008), young married males are more prone to believe in myths about medical side effects of contraception that are usually heard in rumors and gossips, which might partly explain the males’ hesitation to use or let their wives use modern methods of contraception.

The study does not try to negate or discredit the impact of religion and religiosity in young people’s lives. In fact, as previous studies have shown, religion has been found to be a protective factor against early sexual initiation and premarital sex (Lacson, et al, 1997) as well as in other risk behaviors (Marquez, 2004) among Filipino youth. In terms of contraceptive use, studies in other countries provide evidence showing that higher religiosity is associated with less use of medical methods of contraception (Studer & Thornton, 1987). Results of the present study indicate however that contraceptive use among married Filipino youth might be a result of a different set of factors, and that the decision to use contraception and the choice of a method is almost independently of one’s religiosity.

As Studer and Thornton (1989) clarified, the impact of religiosity on sexuality and contraceptive use is multi-dimensional and complex and it varies at different stages of decision-making. Hence, as contexts and priorities change over the course of a person’s life (i.e., from being single to having a family), the effect of religion and religiosity on sexual and contraceptive behavior also changes. An earlier study (David, 2008) has also pointed out that decisions on what method of contraception to use are more complex than frequently depicted in the literature. This indicates that a deeper examination of contraceptive behavior among Filipinos might give us a clearer picture of the underlying factors that lead to use or non-use of a method of contraception.

Implications and Recommendations 

The study’s findings give us more reasons to view population and family planning with an open mind and with more consideration to people’s decision-making. Results indicate that the Church’s position on family planning and contraception has little effect on individuals’ decisions to practice family planning. The almost mythological power of the Church over family planning and population, if ever, may be on the supply side through political pressures on government officials and policymakers. Government’s intervention programs on population must be responsive to what people demand and more importantly, to what they need. As Orbeta (2005) pointed out, the large number of children especially among the poorest section of Philippine society is more of a result of the inability of couples to meet their desired family size due to poor contraceptive practice. Increased efforts should be directed to the poor to allow them to make informed decisions on methods of contraceptive to use. As has long been argued by economists, a national population policy, coupled with good governance, should be comprehensive enough to give more people a choice of family planning method.

Sex education in schools is one venue to make proper information on contraception available to young people. Proper education on sex and contraception can address the gender disparity in contraceptive use, as been found in the study, by making young men recognize their responsibility in family planning. The gender disparity in contraceptive use has direct implications in the latter part of a couple’s life when they already need to negotiate their desired number of children and decide which method of contraception they will use to limit or space births.

The Church may need to reconsider its position on modern family planning. Currently though, instead of directing efforts to campaigns against artificial contraceptives through political means, it might be more helpful if the Church’s efforts can be directed towards informing and instructing people about NFP methods.  Many forms of NFP such as standard days method (SDM) and billings can be used successfully to space or limit births, but most NFP methods require close monitoring of fertility cycles. Hence couples need the proper information, guidance, and motivation to successfully use them.

Although the Church in the Philippines is often depicted as having influence on people’s FP use, there has been only few research efforts that examine the role of religion and religiosity in FP practice. More efforts need to be directed toward understanding religion and religiosity and their impact on people’s lives. Since this research only focused on young married people, it might be useful to also examine the link between religiosity and contraceptive use (and probably fertility) among older and single people.

One limitation of this study is that religiosity is only measured in terms of practices, which provides only a limited aspect of religiosity. More direct measures of religiosity specifically in terms of beliefs and attitudes need to be developed for further research. YAFS3 have measures of beliefs on God, heaven, and hell but these are only linked to a certain religion and therefore do not capture the beliefs of other religions.There also seems to be an issue of question wording in surveys that deal with contraceptive use because for most of the questionnaires, family planning and contraception are used interchangibly. The issue lies in the different understanding of “family planning” across age and marital status. Moreover, how “family planning” is understood may also be different from the way “contraception” is understood. Hence, there is a need to improve on the measurement techniques used in questionnaires that deal with family planning practice and contraceptive use.