Amid the hype surrounding the new Philippine reproductive health bill, signed by President Benigno Aquino III on December 19, 2012, an outspoken street artist and reproductive health advocate named Carlos Celdran has become a lightning rod for the Catholic Church.
It all started on September 30, 2010, when Celdran entered Manila Cathedral during mass dressed as 19th-century Philippine nationalist Jose Rizal. Interrupting the ceremony in progress, he walked down the church’s center aisle, past Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim and a slew of bishops in attendance, and stopped in front of the altar.
As he turned to face the congregation, he lifted a sign emblazoned with the name “DAMASO”, in reference to the corrupt, cruel clergyman of the same name (Padre Damaso Verdolagas) from Rizal’s 19th-century novel Noli Me Tangere. He shouted “Stop getting involved in politics!” to the entire church, before being escorted away by police.
Celdran’s stunt earned him a 13-month stint behind bars, in a sentence handed down Monday in Manila. He was found guilty of violating Article 133 of the nation’s penal code, which prohibits acts deemed to be “notoriously offensive to the feelings of the faithful”.
As predicted, many were outraged by the highly subjective ruling. “Nobody should be jailed for voicing an opinion or position, especially on a subject that concerns the lives of millions of Filipino women and mothers," Carlos Conde, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told BBC.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, University of the Philippines criminal law professor Ibarra Gutierrez said, “I find the whole idea of Article 133 archaic. More than a hundred years ago, we threw off the yoke of Spain, yet we are still dealing with this kind of law.”
Despite the verdict, the 40 year old told his friends, "It was worth every moment." In a Facebook post, he also wrote that he plans to fight the ruling.
The new healthcare bill, for which Celdran pushed, was 14 years in the making. Before finally passing in December, it was shot down three times in the face of fierce opposition by the church in the 80-percent Catholic nation. The bill requires health centers to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, and stipulates the launch of sex education programs in schools.
The church, which views contraception as sinful, has publicly voiced its disapproval of the legislation. "It's not the business of government to be promoting contraceptive devices," the BBC reported Bishop Teodoro Bacani as saying while debate over the law was still raging last December.
He continued, "It's like the government saying it will pass a law which will fund the promotion of pork-eating among the Muslims. Can you imagine what an uproar there would be among the Muslim population?"
For supporters, on the other hand, the reasons for the law are clear. In 1990, the population of the Philippines was 65 million—now there are 95 million—giving the nation the highest birth rate in Southeast Asia. Moreover, a 2011 government survey found that from 2006 to 2010 the nation’s maternal mortality rate had jumped by 36 percent. The bill is intended to offset these disturbing and economically debilitating trends.
The public attention ignited by Celdran’s performance at Manila Cathedral is nothing new for the street artist, who has built a reputation as a go-to guy for commentary on Philippine culture and social issues.
A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design with a degree in performance art, Celdran frequently comments in Western media outlets, offering his take on anything from flooding caused by Typhoon Ketsana to the virtues of spam – of the tinned meat variety – as an economic and social marker. He is also a popular tour guide and has concocted a colorful tour of Manila, including a walk through the city’s old quarter, for which he dons Spanish-colonial era garb.
But even with his public persona, the impact of Celdran’s performance at Manila Cathedral has been of a different order. Since the ruling, the activist’s fame has skyrocketed, evidenced in the more than 39,000 “Likes” on his Facebook page. His popularity has made Celdran a voice for the many Filipinos who find it difficult to express a controversial opinion in a debate that is just getting underway.