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Philippines needs a reproductive health policy: U.N.

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines, where an average of 11 women a day die giving birth, could lower its high maternal death rate by having a reproductive health policy, a visiting United Nations delegation said on Friday.

"The absence of a national reproductive health policy, especially for the poorest, is a vital concern," said Brian Bowler, leader of the delegation of six U.N. bodies.

However, he noted that religious views had to be considered in setting national laws. "The Philippines is a Catholic country, and as such it has very strong principles, and of course religion must be observed," said Bowler, who is Malawi's permanent representative to the U.N.

The Philippines has one of the Asia's fasted-growing populations, which is nearing 100 million people. It also has one of the region's highest rates of maternal deaths. The problem was particularly severe in Muslim communities on Mindanao island, where 320 mothers died per 100,000 live births -- double the national average, Bowler said.

Efforts to enact a law that would promote access to sex education and contraception since the 1990s have been blocked by the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which opposes access to and information about contraception methods.

President Benigno Aquino has indicated support for a reproductive health bill, but the measure was not on a list of 20 priority bills submitted to Congress for swift passage.

Around 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic. A poll last year showed seven out of every 10 would support a reproductive health bill that does not decriminalize abortion.

The U.N. delegation said the Philippines was struggling to achieve other Millennium Development Goals such as reducing malnutrition, achieving universal primary education and reducing gender-based violence.

Bowler said there had been some improvements, particularly in the government's commitments to achieve the development targets in 2015, but there was a need for the U.N. agencies to increase support and intervention.

"There is a great deal of work still to be done, especially in the areas of HIV/AIDS and maternal health, re-building conflict-affected communities and reducing poverty," Bowler said.

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