Philippines seeks unity after birth control law signed

President Benigno Aquino's government called for reconciliation on Saturday after a "divisive" birth control act was signed into law despite bitter opposition from the influential Catholic church.

Making sex education and contraceptives more widely available to the poor, the landmark legislation takes effect in mid-January, Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte said.

"The passage into law of the Responsible Parenthood Act closes a highly divisive chapter of our history -- a chapter borne of the convictions of those who argued for, or against this Act," Valte said in a statement.

"At the same time, it opens the possibility of cooperation and reconciliation... engagement and dialogue characterised not by animosity, but by our collective desire to better the welfare of the Filipino people."

Both chambers of parliament passed the final version of the act on December 19 after an acrimonious debate pitting non-government organisations and women's groups against the country's dominant church and its lay organisations.

Aquino, who was once threatened with excommunication by church leaders for pushing the bill, signed the act two days later and said it gives couples the tools and information needed to plan the size of their families.

Proponents say it will help moderate the nation's rapid population growth, reduce poverty and bring down its high maternal mortality rate.

Church leaders in the Catholic-majority nation have vowed that the fight is not over.

Groups allied with the church are expected to challenge the law in the Supreme Court, while the church itself plans to ask its flock to oust the supporters of the birth control law in next year's general election.

The Philippines has one of Asia's highest birth rates, with the United Nations estimating that half of the country's 3.4 million pregnancies each year are unplanned.

The government's Commission on Women said that maternal mortality also remains high, with 162 deaths for every 100,000 live births, while 10 women die every day from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications.

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