MANILA - Millions of poor people in the Philippines will have access to free contraceptives for the first time after the nation's top court on Tuesday approved a deeply controversial birth control law.
The Supreme Court's ruling was hailed by supporters as a triumph in the battle to ease crippling poverty, empower women and curtail a population explosion in the Southeast Asian nation of 100 million people.
But the Catholic Church, which had led a bitter campaign for 15 years against efforts to introduce any form of family planning laws, vowed to continue resisting what it termed an "unjust" law.
"The RH law is not unconstitutional," Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te told reporters as he announced the ruling, striking down more than a dozen petitions against the reproductive health law from church-backed groups.
The legislation requires government health centres to supply free condoms and birth control pills, as well as mandating that sex education be taught in schools.
It also requires that public health workers receive family planning training, while medical care after an abortion will also be legalised.
The issues are so controversial in the Philippines because nearly 80 per cent of the population are Catholics, an inheritance of three centuries of Spanish colonial rule that ended in the late 1800s.
And while Pope Francis has made comments calling for an end to the Church's "obsession" with divorce, gays, contraception and abortions, local Catholic leaders have maintained a firm line on such issues.
The Philippines is the only country where divorce remains illegal, and abortions are also outlawed.
"This monumental decision upholds the separation of church and state and affirms the supremacy of government in secular concerns like health and socio-economic development," legislator Edcel Lagman, the main author of the law, said after the ruling.
Deaths in childbirth
Women's rights groups and other supporters of the law said it would be a powerful tool in cutting the Philippines' fertility rate of 3.54, one of the highest in Asia that has contributed to the nation's brutal poverty.
More than a quarter of the population live on the equivalent of 62 cents a day, according to the government, with many million housed in horrific urban slums and unable to afford contraceptives.
"The full and speedy implementation of the law will be critically important in reducing maternal mortality and ensuring universal access to reproductive health care," the United Nations said in a statement welcoming the ruling.
It noted that the number of women dying while giving birth in the Philippines had remained high over the past two decades, and the nation was expected to miss a 2015 development target to cut maternal deaths to 52 per 100,000 live births.