Battle over RH bill shifts to Senate

Anti-RH leaders threaten the passage of the bill in the Senate but the undecided are the game-changers

FILIBUSTERING RH? Senator Sotto has warned he may resign as Majority Leader to filibuster the RH bill. Sotto will deliver an anti-RH "turno en contra" speech Monday. File photo from Senate website

MANILA, Philippines – Two months before the House of Representatives’ much-awaited vote to end debates on the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, the measure already hurdled the period of interpellations at the Senate. This does not mean though that the battle is any easier at the chamber.

Today, August 13, Senate Majority Leader Vicente “Tito” Sotto III will avail himself of a rarity in the legislative process as part of his crusade against Senate Bill 2865 or the Reproductive Health Act of 2011. Sotto will deliver a so-called “turno en contra” speech that he bills as an exposé.

“We will expose those who are really behind this, the organizations behind it, the kind of money they are spending for it,” Sotto told reporters last week. 

The “turno en contra” allows lawmakers to present their arguments against a bill. While it is part of parliamentary practice for bills under second reading, Sotto’s colleagues said it is hardly used except for the budget.

“I have not in my 13 years here in the Senate heard of a turno en contra in measures other than the budget,” Sen Franklin Drilon said in a press briefing.

The speech is indicative of the lengths Sotto will go to oppose the bill, and what RH advocates are up against in the Senate. While the so-called purple army is celebrating their victory at the House last August 6, when it voted to end debates and move to the period of bill amendments, more challenges await them in the other chamber of Congress.

Here is what the legal and political battleground at the Senate looks like:

1. The Leadership   

The Senate and House versions are now at the same stage: the period of amendments. At this point, the committee will introduce changes to the bill based on inputs from the yearlong plenary debates. Lawmakers can also propose individual amendments on the floor before voting on second and third reading.

Unlike the House, the Senate leadership is staunchly against the RH bill. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Sotto are among the most vocal critics of the measure. The two even attended the August 4 prayer-rally organized by Catholic bishops as an anti-RH “show of force.”

A NEED? Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senator Pia Cayetano debate on the need for an RH law. File photo by Joe Arazas, Senate website

This poses a potential problem because the Senate President and the Majority Leader help determine the Senate’s agenda and timetable. Enrile has said the bill’s passage is unlikely while Sotto said it is not a priority.

RH bill sponsor Senator Pia Cayetano lamented, “What’s sad is that the Senate can take a stand when it comes to cases like impeachment, we can have political will. But just because those in the two highest positions of the Senate are against it, should they use their position to prevent [the passage] of a measure?”

Enrile denied using his post to block the bill. Sotto, however, threatened to step down as majority leader to be able to filibuster as a regular senator. The two even said they want to revert to interpellations on the bill to ask more questions.

Traditionally, the Senate is seen to be more independent of Malacañang and less susceptible to pressure from the Palace. President Benigno Aquino III has expressed support for a position he calls “responsible parenthood,” which many advocates take to mean as the same as reproductive health.

2. The Reservations

While the Senate’s top brass opposes the RH bill, many senators are still not categorical on their stand on the issue.

Senators who have openly supported the RH bill are:

  1. Pia Cayetano (co-author)
  2. Miriam Defensor Santiago (co-author)
  3. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson (co-author)
  4. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr
  5. Edgardo Angara
  6. Sergio “Serge” Osmeña III

Senators who have openly opposed the bill are:

  1. Juan Ponce Enrile
  2. Vicente “Tito” Sotto III
  3. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III
  4. Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV
  5. Manuel “Manny” Villar Jr

The rest are either undecided or supportive but with reservations. This was indicated in the committee report they signed last year with comments, reservations or intended changes. They are:

  1. Joker Arroyo
  2. Alan Peter Cayetano
  3. Franklin Drilon
  4. Francis “Chiz” Escudero
  5. Jinggoy Estrada
  6. Teofisto “TG” Guingona III
  7. Gregorio Honasan II
  8. Manuel “Lito” Lapid
  9. Loren Legarda
  10. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan
  11. Ralph Recto
  12. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr

Some of those undecided said their vote will depend on the final version of the bill. Senator Pia Cayetano’s brother, Alan Peter, for example, has some reservations.

He said in a statement, “If you as a parent wish to have your child exempted from lessons dealing with RH, what program does the school have for your child as an alternative? And as a doctor, if you are Catholic and are not amenable to performing certain operations or treatments, what can you do?”

Escudero also said he needs clarification on: 1) provision on abortion, 2) rights of a citizen for free and informed choice, 3) role of the government, and 4) sex education. He said he will not approve of sex education earlier than first year high school.

The RH bill does not legalize abortion but wants government to ensure that women needing care for post-abortion complications be treated. The measure also provides for age-appropriate education but does not specify at what stage it should be introduced.

The provisions on post-abortion care, sex education, and contraceptives are among the most contentious parts of the bill.

Senator Pia Cayetano said she has already answered her colleagues’ questions during the debates. Those who asked questions are Enrile, Sotto, Recto, Lacson, Osmeña, Lapid, Legarda, Trillanes and Pimentel. Arroyo and Estrada also joined the discussion.

RARE MOMENT. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile greets Senator Lapid as the latter joined the RH debates for the first time in October 2011. Will Lapid vote for or against the bill? File photo by Joseph Vidal, Senate PRIB

Cayetano summed up the main arguments in her blog and in an interview on Rappler’s #TalkThursday.

During the debates, the differences in the two sides’ positions were so fundamental and pronounced that at one point, Santiago said, “If it is the position of Senator Enrile that a sperm has life, of course, if a sperm has life, then that life should be protected. Therefore, in logic, when a person masturbates and releases all those sperms for nothing, he commits murder? Let’s think about that.”

The gap between the pro and anti-RH groups was caricatured by the satirical news website So, What’s News?:

UH-OH. "This is why Senators Sotto and Defensor-Santiago can't be teammates in Pinoy Henyo." - Caption and image from sowhatsnews.wordpress.com

3. The Amendments

Cayetano and Santiago do not expect significant changes during the period of amendments.

They said they expect minor amendments on sex education, the budget, and clarifying the phrasing of including contraceptives in the national drug formulary or the stock of medicines in hospitals and health units.

“I am confident that there will be no serious challenges to the bill during the period of amendments,” said Santiago.

CAMPUS CAMPAIGN. Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago and Pia Cayetano push for the RH bill at a forum in UP with former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral. File photo from Senate website

It remains to be seen if the period of amendments will be as smooth-sailing as the sponsors intend. Sotto has expressed vehement objections to several provisions.

Ang ayaw namin, dinedeklarang essential medicine ang mga contraceptive. Pangalawa, iyang camouflaged consent to abortion and then the sex education sa Grade 5 or lower. ‘Yun ang mga problema namin,” Sotto told reporters. (What we do not want is declaring contraceptives as essential medicines. Two, the camouflaged consent to abortion, and the sex education for Grade 5 or lower.)

4. The Time

The RH bill sponsors pegged the passage of the measure by this month or the end of the year at the latest. Cayetano told Rappler the amendments will only take a few weeks.

The proponents want the bill passed at the soonest, before the Senate tackles the 2013 budget in plenary. The budget takes precedence over other bills.

The 2013 elections also affect the timetable as politicians start preparing for the polls. A vote close to the elections  makes the issue more controversial, with anti-RH groups already threatening to campaign against pro-RH lawmakers. Santiago, however, assured politicians that there is no such thing as a Catholic vote.

After 17 years, will the RH bill finally become law? Looking at the Senate’s composition, the undecided will determine the fate of the bill in the chamber.

Cayetano said that with the issue being explained, rehashed and clarified “until it was blue in the face,” her colleagues should be ready to vote by now.

“How difficult is that? It’s an embarrassment to the Filipino people to say that ‘we are not yet ready.’”

Santiago, who has campaigned for the RH bill using jokes and pick-up lines, turned to humor to push her colleagues to make a stand.

“Because of the long delay in passing this bill from Congress to Congress, sometimes it no longer looks like an RH bill but a geriatric bill.” – Rappler.com

For more updates on the issue of the RH Bill, view our #RHBill Debate Microsite

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