Lessons from the RH bill debate

Buena Bernal
Hopefully in the next policy debates that our nation will face, we will do away with the non-issues, as well as name-calling

BUENA BERNALThe passage of the Reproductive Health bill (RH bill) is a legislative milestone.

It speaks of victory for the Filipino women who have long been deprived of a legally enforceable right over ways to protect their vaginas and to control the number of babies that will pass through it.

The provision of options does not force women into one option or the other; it simply educates them about choices so that they are well-informed. Neither is the bill a panacea, as no single law ever is. What does matter in the entire process of crafting, passing, and signing it into legislation is that the voice of the people prevailed.

Beyond social media

Social media has, without a doubt, helped in the campaign by increasing levels of knowledge, but it also made it easier for people to voice their support for a controversial battle even if just by tweeting.

As I’ve written before, knowledge expansion through social media should never substitute actual engagement.

Even before fighting for reproductive health rights became a pervasive cause online, there were already people involved in the actual “doing.”

In a relatively rural area in Palawan, for example, an organization called Roots of Health (ROH) has serviced the unmet contraceptive needs of 237 women just in the previous year. ROH has offered sexual education in 388 elementary school students, 911 high school students, and 1,778 college students.

“There are so many NGOs/CSOs in Palawan that are focused on other issues such as mining and environmental concerns, but very few focus on health. In fact we are the only maternal and child health organization of our kind in Puerto Princesa,” said ROH executive director Amina Evangelista Swanepoel.

Myrna, not her real name, is one of the clients recently serviced by ROH. She is 22, with two kids, and the father of her baby has denied any responsibility over the child she bore weeks ago.

It is indeed a milestone that in the days to come, the responsibility of meeting the reproductive health needs of every Myrna in the country will no longer be solely in the hands of civil society but will finally be taken on by government, which is tasked to protect our welfare.

Ad hominem attacks

There is no denying that the RH bill debate within and outside our nation’s legislative chambers has been marked by a great degree of divisiveness. The religious dimension of the debate is probably what has given rise to more tension.

It is disturbing, however, that certain supporters of the RH bill seem to think their stand on the issue gives them license to malign.

In the process of advocating for reproductive health, they seem to have acquired a bloated sense of self, regarding themselves as intellectually superior to the anti-RH camp. They make sweeping declarations about religion and its followers on the Internet.

They call those who believe in God “idiots,” “blind followers,” “delusional,” and other names. They issue disparaging statements that ascribe definitive assumptions on the character of believers. Of course, it was well within their right to do so. Yet it certainly did not help in the progression of a mature, secular debate.

It is exactly that kind of unabashed hate remarks that either raised tension due to emotional reverberations or alienated some people from the debate out of fear of reproach.

Name-calling and ad hominem attacks are tactics used by people who cannot properly frame sound and reasonable cases. Stooping to the level of name-calling is just as useless as an illogical argument, even if you were on the more logical side of the debate.

It is rather hypocritical for these so-called advocates to think their personal, negative feelings against God and His existence have a place in the secular discourse, while personal, positive feelings for God cannot be afforded such privilege.

The truth is, neither should have any bearing on the debate if we are to truly aim for a thriving, secular democracy. They are essentially non-issues.

Public interest

Secularism is hinged on reasoning that takes into account the public interest instead of one’s personal – usually religious – convictions. This means that wherever you may stand on the religious spectrum, you must argue for or against a certain policy based on the public good. Your religious belief or, as many tend to forget, lack of it, should not be the basis.

Hopefully in the next policy debates that our nation will face, we will do away with the non-issues. There will no longer be threats of eternal damnation to those who challenge religious dogma in the name of public interest, as much as there will no longer be sweeping degrading judgments on the character of believers.

Hopefully, we – each one of us – will get to the heart of the matter. What tangible benefits do we acquire as a nation? Is the law sensitive to the culture and needs of our people? Is it at the heart of public interest as opposed to personal, religious convictions?

There will be a speedier passage of legislative milestones in the future, if only we do away with the non-issues. –

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