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Manila's Aquino crosses one hurdle in pushing contraceptive bill

MANILA -- Philippine lawmakers have agreed to suspend debate on a health bill promoting state-funded contraception and speed up its passage in Congress after President Benigno Aquino urged them to adopt the measure opposed by the powerful Roman Catholic church.

The lawmakers approved a motion to end debate on the bill by a voice vote late on Monday. Earlier in the day, Aquino told about 180 legislators that the debates that have delayed the reform over the last 17 months must end.

Aquino, the son of former president and democracy icon Corazon Aquino, is stepping out of the shadow of his later mother in coming out openly against the wishes of the church. Corazon Aquino was put in power in 1986 after a popular revolt strongly supported by the church.

The Philippines, with a rapidly growing population of around 95 million, is the only predominantly Catholic country in the region apart from East Timor.

"This is not a morality issue, this is a social issue that is closer to the hearts of most ordinary Filipinos," Earl Parreno of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms, told Reuters.

"I don't see any risk for the president. I think this will even push his popularity higher."

The bill, as it stands, requires governments down to the village level to provide free or low-cost reproductive health services. The law will not promote abortion, which is illegal.

In a state of the nation address last month, Aquino stressed his government could not end decades of shortages in accommodation and books in schools without responsible parenthood.

That statement was Aquino's strongest message yet on controlling population growth estimated at around 2 percent annually, part of his poll campaign program in 2010.

Aquino's allies in the lower house of Congress have assured him they would pass the bill within the month. Analysts say Aquino also has enough allies in the upper house to push the bill through, after which it can be signed into law.

Opponents of the bill, led by the bishops, warned they would campaign against the re-election in 2013 of lawmakers who supported it.

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