(Pregnant teenagers queue for a free pre-natal check-up during a medical mission for teenage pregnancy conducted by the aid agency United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) in the slum community of Vitas in Tondo, Manila August 31, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Philippine President Benigno Aquino is squaring off against his country’s powerful Catholic church in a bid to give people free access to the means to limit the size of their families.

The predominately Catholic country has one of Asia’s fastest-growing populations together with significant levels of chronic poverty. While neighbours have accelerated towards prosperity, the Philippines has lagged.

Economists say high population growth is a primary factor for that, but the church disagrees. It says population growth is not a cause of poverty and that people need jobs, not contraception.

Aquino, a Catholic like 80 percent of the population, has thrown his support behind a reproductive health bill that will, if passed by the two houses of Congress, guarantee access to free birth control and promote sex education.