A proposed sex education program in the Philippines has pitted the United Nations Population Fund and its allies in the Philippine government against the Catholic Church. 

The Department of Education and the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines are in a standoff over sex education, said Malaya newspaper. 

The government is test-piloting a new education program set to debut in 80 elementary and 79 secondary schools. On June 24, then-Philippine education secretary Mona Valisno denied reports that the department had halted the pilot program, reported Asian Church news agency UCA News. 

“I never said anything about stopping it. We have been extending invitations to the public, particularly the [bishops’ conference], for dialogue on the issue at hand,” she said. 

The program features a comic book depicting naked people in bed and is expected to teach sex education in several different classes at once (see sidebar). 

Last month, a lawyer hired by the bishops’ conference filed a lawsuit against the program, representing parents who objected to the program’s content. 

With the inauguration of a new president, Benigno Aquino III, on June 30, and a new education secretary, Armin Luistro, the fate of the program is unclear, but Luistro told a Philippine newspaper late last month that he had not thought too much about it yet.

Disregarding norms 

The incident is the latest battle pitting the U.N. Population Fund’s secularizing instincts against a nation’s cultural and religious norms. 

Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, or C-FAM, a U.N. watchdog and awareness group, said he knows of no UNFPA attempt to take cultural norms into account. “In fact, the UNFPA talks about overcoming cultural objections,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

The UNFPA failed to comment for this story after making arrangements for an interview. 

Valisno told Malaya in June that the government would be open to changing the program if it is found to contradict Christian values. She also claimed the program doesn’t include instruction on contraceptives. However, the Philippine government has made several attempts to promote contraceptives in schools. Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral recently planned to hand out free condoms on Valentine’s Day, reported Agence-France Presse. 

The United Nations Population Fund refers to contraceptive education in its defense of the Philippine program. 

The agency stressed that Philippines is a signatory to an international treaty on the rights of children. As such, said the U.N. Population Fund in a press release, “It is the obligation of the state to ensure that all adolescent girls and boys are provided with accurate and appropriate information on how to protect their health and practice healthy behaviors.”  

“The United Nations will continue to work with the government ... to respect, fulfill and protect the rights of girls and boys to comprehensive information regarding their health and their bodies.” 

Authentic understanding 

The Philippine Catholic bishops, echoing the Vatican, reject the “sexual rights of youth” argument the United Nations has tried to make in the Philippines and elsewhere. 

Father Francis Lucas, media director for the Philippine bishops, summed up the bishops’ case on the Philippines bishops conference website. In true education about human sexuality, he said, “we are talking not just about sex but human sexuality. Parents play a primary role in education, and schools just a secondary role.” 

The Church’s fear is that the Philippines will go the way of the West. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, the late president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, addressed the question of sex education in 2003.  

“The use of contraception, which is fostered by active propaganda among young people through so-called ‘sex education’ courses, has negative effects that are well known today,” he wrote. “When young people receive this kind of ‘preparation,’ they get an erroneous, immature mentality regarding sexuality that is unsuitable for their future conjugal union.” 

Promoting contraception 

But the UNFPA insists its style of sex education is moral and effective.  

“Global evidence shows that giving clear, appropriate information to adolescents does not increase promiscuity but helps them make responsible decisions,” its statement says. 

Dr. Norman Hearst, a family physician and epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco, would disagree. 

UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, asked Hearst in 2003 to do a scientific review to see if condom promotions had reversed HIV/AIDS epidemics. He and his assistant, Sanny Chen of the San Francisco Public Health Department, found the contrary was true. Countries with the most condoms per man tended to have the highest HIV rates. 

“These findings surprised us and were not what UNAIDS wanted to hear at all,” the East African quoted Dr. Hearst saying in February 2009.  

Allies on social issues 

Austin Ruse said the climate at the United Nations has been difficult for years for Catholic issues, especially in countries, like the Philippines, with Muslim influence. 

The country’s Muslim community has also voiced concern over the program.  

“With Bush there was an open door and an expectation that they would always do the right thing. Even so, because of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration was a net negative for our work,” Ruse said. “The Muslims, who are our natural allies on social issues, would not work with the Bush administration, and therefore we lost them on our issues. They remained largely silent.” 

The problem is different with the Obama administration, which is “very much against” Catholic positions on U.N. issues, he told OSV. They are “aggressively against what we believe in.” But, “as a result, the Muslim countries are becoming active on our issues again.” 

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

Troubling approach (sidebar)

The Philippines’ sex education curriculum’s comic books showing naked people in bed were what set off parents and provoked a firestorm of criticism. But the program was troubling to the Church because of its comprehensive approach. 

It would have promoted a United Nations Population Fund’s vision of sexuality to kids at the elementary and high school levels, in several classes at once. 

In the proposed curriculum module, science classes were to address the reproductive system, body parts, reproductive cycle and puberty. 

Other classes would handle questions of “proper sexual behavior among and between peers of different genders” and “personal hygiene and reproductive health,” according to the government. A separate class would cover “the positions of religious groups on premarital sex and the norms when people of opposite sex interact.” 

In math, students would use data about premarital sex, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases as their statistics exercises.