MANILA, Philippines - President Benigno Aquino III pledged on Sunday to push for the passage of a reproductive health bill in Congress as a tool to fight poverty even at the risk of excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.
Efforts to enact a law that would promote access to sex education and contraception have been blocked since the 1990s by powerful Roman Catholic bishops. Around 80 percent of the country's 94 million people are Catholic.
"I remain committed to push the passage of a law for responsible parenthood," Aquino told graduates of the country's premier state university.
"I know there are those who oppose it. At risk of excommunication, it is my obligation as leader to explain my principles to them, even if their minds are already closed. But, in the end, I must listen to my conscience and do what is right."
Last year, Catholic bishops denied threatening to impose canonical sanction against the president due to his plans but reminded him to consider church's position.
The bishops said some forms of contraception were tantamount to abortion. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines.
Aquino has indicated support for the bill, raising hopes it could be passed, but the measure was not on a list of priority bills submitted to Congress.
During his speech, Aquino spoke of meeting an unemployed 16-year-old boy with two children. He said:
"How will they feed their children when they have no jobs? Who is to blame for their situation? How did such responsibility fall on them? More importantly, how can I help them?"
The church says tackling corruption would do more to reduce poverty than slowing population growth. The Philippines has one of the region's highest rates of maternal deaths -- an average of 11 women a day die giving birth.
Foreign missions and international agencies have been urging the Philippine government to adopt a reproductive health legislative framework as an anti-poverty strategy.
The European Union has also called for the passage of a maternal health law, saying slower population growth would improve health and lower poverty. It has promised $50.5 million health package to raise contraceptive usage in low-income, rural communities.