It's complicated: The battle for divorce law in Catholic Philippines

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 25 2019 04:04 PM | Updated as of Sep 25 2019 04:45 PM

MANILA—Legislators behind the birth control law passed 6 years ago are making a strong push to legalize divorce in predominantly Catholic Philippines, the only other country other than the Vatican without it.

Committee hearings on an “absolute divorce” bill began last week, a first in the Senate, said Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a former party-list congresswoman who championed the Reproductive Health (RH) Law.

But her latest project is facing tough opposition from conservative groups, which had predicted stronger congressional lobby for same-sex marriage, gender equality, and divorce legislation following the RH “framework.”

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Senator Risa Hontiveros. File photo

 Hontiveros is also the principal author of a bill imposing jail time for anyone who would discriminate against members of the LGBT community.

“These are all part of a global agenda of destroying our values for life and family and the destruction of humanity,” said Rizalito David, executive director of Pro-life Philippines Foundation.

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Rizalito David. File photo


Proponents tout the divorce bill as way to save spouses from a “loveless” marriage, giving them a second chance at finding a better, and perhaps, lasting, partner.

At present, Philippine laws allow only the nullification of marriage, annulment, and legal separation based on various grounds.

Securing any of these options can be tedious mainly because of the need to protect marriage as an “inviolable social institution,” said Soledad Deriquito-Mawis, who specializes in family law.

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Dean Soledad Deriquito Mawis. ANC

The Hontiveros bill covers similar grounds to terminate a marriage or allow legal separation under the Family Code.

But it adds “irreconcilable marital differences,” a highly contentious subject that might torpedo the measure, Mawis said, adding it might range from serious physical abuse to vague disagreements.

“Yung konsepto ng irreconcilable differences, yan talaga 'tong laging pinag-aawayan,” she told ABS-CBN News. “Ano yun? Is it just because hindi tayo magkasundo, yun na yun?”


A nullified marriage means it’s void from the beginning. Grounds include incestuous or bigamous marriages, or if one party is below 18 years old.

Annulment pertains to the “termination of a voidable marriage by a court of law based on a defect in one or more of the essential requisites of marriage that occurred at the time of its celebration,” lawyer Evalyn Ursua wrote in 2014.

A marriage may be annulled if, say, a party did not disclose a previous conviction by final judgment of a crime involving “moral turpitude.”

Concealment of a sexually transmissible disease “existing at the time of the marriage” are also grounds for annulment, according to the Family Code.


The divorce bill also covers the grounds on which a spouse may petition for legal separation such as drug addition or habitual alcoholism, homosexuality, sexual infidelity or perversion.

“Physical violence or grossly abusive conduct” need not be considered “repeated” to be considered as a ground for legal separation, according to the bill.

And unlike legal separation where the marriage remains intact, divorce will allow spouses to remarry.

“For those who are happily married, that’s wonderful kasi naabot yung layunin ng marriage,” Hontiveros told ABS-CBN News in a previous interview.

“But this bill is for those (wives) and also husbands who would like a second chance at life.”


Judging by cases she has handled over the years, Mawis said it might be time for the Philippines to consider a divorce law.

“Nobody can teach you or tell a person to stay in love with this guy,” she said. “You might as well terminate a loveless marriage, lest you want others to commit sin. Eh talagang wala na eh.”

Under the law, a battered wife may resort to legal separation but the marriage with the abusive husband will remain intact, she noted.

“What if she falls in love again and this time with a man who’s really mabait and everything? Why not give her a second chance?” she said.

In a previous statement, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines urged lawmakers to consider that a divorce law “might end up destroying even those marriages that could have been saved by dialogues or the intervention of family, friends, pastors, and counselors.”

David said spouses in “untenable” marriages could resort to annulment, which need not be expensive.

“The Philippines not having a divorce law should be a cause of celebration and not of regret and distress,” he told ABS-CBN News.

“This simply means that we value the importance of marriage and family as foundations of a truly caring and progressive nation.”