MANILA — Philippine boxing hero Manny Pacquiao flashed his trademark smile while in the midst of his latest fight this week, but on this occasion he was wearing a suit and the arena was the nation's parliament.
True to the eight-time world champion's sporting reputation for boldness, Pacquiao chose the hot-button issue of contraception as the platform for his first foray into a major debate since being elected to congress last year.
Political tensions are at fever point in the mainly Catholic nation as a diverse group of politicians try to pass a controversial bill that would mandate government support for artificial contraceptives and family planning advice.
Pacquiao generated more headlines than most in the debate this week as he took on a leadership role in the Catholic Church's long and determined campaign to destroy the bill, which would see the state give condoms to the poor.
"God said, 'Go out and multiply.' He did not say, just have two or three kids," Pacquiao said following a meeting with bishops on Tuesday, shortly after returning from Las Vegas and his latest boxing victory over Shane Mosley.
Pacquiao followed up on Wednesday by taking the floor of the House of Representatives to question the architect of the bill in a feisty debate that captivated the country, with excerpts broadcast repeatedly on news channels.
Lifting the mood initially, Edcel Lagman, the minority leader of the house and a veteran legislator, told Pacquiao he was: "Ready to rumble," eliciting a big smile from the world champion and laughter from colleagues in the chamber.
Wearing a grey suit with a bright-red tie, Pacquiao then appeared initially uneasy against Lagman and critics accused him of showing little political savvy in the debate, but he refused to take a backward step.
"I heard... the bill is not a magic wand that will end the suffering in our country. If so, why don't we draft a bill that will solve all the suffering of the country... rather than (this) bill which I find so divisive," he said.
Pacquiao, 32, who famously rose up from deep poverty to become a world boxing champion, has long harboured political ambitions and was elected to parliament last year after an unsuccessful initial attempt in 2007 elections.
However he had largely stayed out of the political spotlight until this week, instead pursuing his sporting career by fighting two high-profile and lucrative bouts in the United States since being elected.
Pacquiao's supporters have lauded his decision to oppose the family planning bill as his first major political fight, saying it has earned him big credits with the Catholic Church, an enormously powerful institution in the country.
Almost 80 percent of Filipinos are Catholic, a legacy of the Philippines' Spanish colonial past, and the church has helped to lead two revolutions over the past 25 years while ensuring abortion and divorce remain illegal.
Nevertheless, Pacquiao has had to endure some bruises by stepping into the political ring this week, with his opponents accusing him of hypocrisy after he admitted that his wife used to take the pill as a form of birth control.
Pacquiao is also a well-known gambler with a reputation for late-night partying with friends.
But the father-of-four insisted his decision to oppose the family planning bill was driven by strict Catholic moral values and a desire to help the tens of millions of impoverished Filipinos.
"It's sinful to use condoms and commit abortion," he said in one interview with the media this week.
When asked if family planning was needed to control the country's booming population, he said:" "My parents were poor... they had four children, it was very difficult but we persevered."
Meanwhile, the bill has a long way to go before it becomes law. Under the US-style legislative system of the Philippines, it must be passed by both the House and the Senate before it can be approved.
In the debates that began this week, the bill has been subject to lengthy questioning by opposing congressmen such as Pacquiao in what some see as a deliberate tactic to delay a vote.
House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales, who supports the bill, said a vote on the bill may not take place until next year.
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