Love, law, and liberation: The Philippine divorce debate

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

While today is the Philippines’ celebration of its independence, many Filipinos are also preoccupied with another concept of “independence”: the legalization of divorce in the country. The House of Representatives recently passed a legislation of allowing couples to end their marriage. Many argue that divorce is a cheaper, faster, and more logical alternative to annulment, which many see as tedious and expensive.

While references to divorce can be found among pre-Hispanic ancestors and during the Spanish period, formal and legal marriages were only established by the Spaniards. The Spanish allowed only for legal separation, known as divorce a mensa et thoro, which did not annul the marriage or dissolve the marital bond. A more liberal approach to divorce emerged during the American period, culminating in the implementation of a divorce law in 1917, after years of debate.

In 1912, an early version of the divorce law was rejected by the Philippine Executive Commission. A US news report claimed that this bill was pushed by "native agitators" trying to appear Americanized but did not reflect the majority of Filipinos' sentiments. Over the years, debates over more relaxed divorce legislation continued. Until the end of American colonization, divorce in the Philippines was only granted for adultery in women and concubinage in men, both requiring mandatory imprisonment, which deterred many couples from seeking divorce.

By 1937, US reports indicated that the strongest opposition to divorce came from Filipina mothers and wives who "feared a liberal divorce law”. Some Filipinas stated they hadn't developed enough independence to envision life without their husbands. Those who could afford it went to the US to obtain a divorce, but Philippine courts declared these divorces invalid in the Philippines.

Surprisingly, several prominent Filipino legislators were strong advocates for a more liberal divorce law. The push for expanded divorce was driven by frequent cases of immorality, separations, and unhappy homes. In the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, members of the national assembly held public hearings on various divorce bills. Younger political leaders, like Senators Camilo Osias and Benigno Aquino, openly supported these changes. Senator Aquino repeatedly tried to amend the law to allow divorce without criminal prosecution. Both he and Senator Osias introduced bills that passed both legislative houses but were ultimately vetoed by the governor general.

Despite the enduring importance of marriage for most Filipinos, the number of both legal and informal separations has been on the rise in recent years. Reports show that annulment and nullity cases filed with the Office of the Solicitor-General increased significantly, from 4,520 in 2001 to 11,135 in 2014. This upward trend is also reflected in census and survey data. Over the last 20 years, public opinion on divorce has consistently ranged between 40-60% approval according to surveys by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), with the lowest support at 43% in 2005 and the highest at 60% in 2014. A more recent SWS survey conducted from March 21-25, 2024, revealed that half of Filipino adults nationwide support legalizing divorce for irreconcilably-separated couples. The survey asked respondents whether "married couples who have already separated and cannot reconcile anymore should be allowed to divorce so that they can get legally married again." The results showed that 50% agreed, 31% disagreed, and 17% were undecided.

The recent revival of the divorce discussion has raised questions about the responsibilities of our politicians. Should they vote based on their constituents' sentiments, or, like Senator Cynthia Villar, can they decide based on personal feelings? As the debate continues, divorce proponents remind us that, aside from Vatican City, the Philippines is the only country where divorce is still illegal. In the long run, is this a distinction we should be proud of, or are we clinging to our “Catholic and conservative” stance more out of nostalgia than practical reasons?

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