WHEN the Pope visits the Philippines next year he may be caught in the middle of a storm over birth control that is splitting the country, following an increasingly emotional confrontation over the issue between the Protestant President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, represented by Health Secretary Juan Flavier, and Roman Catholic Archbishop Jaime Sin. The slugfest is dredging up scenes reminiscent of 1986 when the church turned political and mustered the Roman Catholic support that gave Cory Aquino's People Power the edge to end the 20-year-rule of Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Next Sunday there will be what the church hopes is a massive rally at the Quirino Bandstand at the Luneta Park in protest against a Philippine government decision to send a 15-man delegation, headed by Mr Flavier, to the International Conference on Population and Development next month in Cairo. The conference has become controversial because a Draft Final Document, formulated at a recent preparatory conference in New York and co-ratified by the Philippines, states that women should have access to safe abortion, reliable information and compassionate counselling and services. Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila, has called for the Philippines to boycott the Cairo conference because it focuses on the freedom of choice in sexual matters and acceptance of the means and devices required to make the choice effective. The government, ruled by a constitution that prohibits abortion calls its own pro-choice stand on birth control the ''cafeteria approach''. And while the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines calls the pro-life, anti-contraception stand anything but a cafeteria menu, many of the country's 65 million people, 87.5 per cent of whom are Catholic, perceive themselves as the meat in the sandwich - those at centre of the issue. The people have been somewhat quiet in the looming battle of the political and ecclesiastical heavyweights, but it is more than likely that this issue will not be decided in the Vatican or Malacanang, but in the crowded baranguays and barrios where birth control is often a life-or-death issue. The showdown has been said by some observers as the most serious collision between the two Philippine power players since World War II. But the people, no matter how poor and isolated they may be, perceive the whole affair as immaterial bluster. In a country where a maid earns just US$35 (HK$270) a month, most of which is sometimes remitted to the provinces to house and school her family, there is not much quibbling on whether or not to use contraceptives. ''The average couple couldn't care less over who says what about birth control. It comes down to how many children they can support,'' says Makati Vice-Mayor Nini Licaros, whose social service programmes and work with the street children of Makati have long since earned her the nickname ''Action Woman''. ''People just want to live the best they can. More often than not, this means birth control.'' The Makati Family Planning Clinic, which has been operating several years despite church dictums, says it has more than 2,000 women on its books who get free contraceptives on a regular basis. Most of these are Catholics. ''There have only been a few occasions in my experience that a woman has declined contraceptives purely on the basis that she is Catholic,'' the clinic's physician Dr Eva Anastacio said. SENATOR Raul Roco, who has been made an ''honorary woman'' by Philippine women's rights groups for championing their cause in Congress, said the debate of generating ''more heat than light''. ''It is generally a debate of two old men. Cardinal Sin and Health Secretary Flavier,'' he said. ''But every contributor in this very important issue also happens to be a man. There is hardly any contribution from the people most closely associated with the issue of birth control, namely women. ''The situation is vaguely similar to giving women the right to vote. They should have every right to be consulted on birth control. The people's right to be at the forefront of this issue is echoed by some of the press, although others have chosen to ignore the argument altogether because they are pro-Catholic. ''For all the moral leadership it might have provided us during the last few days of Marcos' despotic rule, the church is showing once again how easily it can lapse into irrelevance and irresponsibility, into a sorry retreat of ageing single men who would decide, from behind the ramparts of the Vatican, what's right for the world,'' the newspaper Today said. Indeed the showdown does not seem to be so much a power play between concepts and ideology as a tug of war between two very determined factions - each a backbone of Philippine society - neither of which is prepared to back down. President Fidel Ramos, a Methodist, and the Philippines' first Protestant president, sees the exploding population as a major obstacle to making the Philippines an economic tiger by the year 2000. Cardinal Sin, on the other hand, has never liked President Ramos because of his spotty human rights record as constabulary chief and administrator of martial law. Cardinal Sin also has a dim view of the president's private life and was further outraged when Mr Ramos recently proclaimed August 1 as National Family Planning Day. Furthermore, while the Roman Catholic church made enormous ground during the People Power revolution, it lost a lot of ground during the 1992 presidential election when it backed the wrong candidate, Ramon Mitra. Meanwhile, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) chairman, Christian Monsod, has sought to prohibit the church from engaging in partisan political activity.