RH law showdown moves to SC

Carmela Fonbuena
Critics of the reproductive health law will try to persuade justices that the law is unconstitutional

MANILA, Philippines — The showdown over the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) law moves from Congress to the Supreme Court (SC), where 15 justices will decide the fate of a measure that took 13 years and 4 months to pass.

Critics of the law will be the first to face the high tribunal during oral arguments on Tuesday, July 9. They intend to persuade SC justices that the measure, which cost President Benigno Aquino III some political capital, is unconstitutional.

READ: RH law: The long and rough road

The move to bring the battle to the SC was expected. It was one of the “remedies” the Catholic bishops spoke about when they were losing the numbers game in Congress.

The RH law funds the distribution of free contraceptives, requires government hospitals to provide reproductive health (RH) services, and mandates public schools to teach sex education.

The law’s staunchest critic, the Catholic Church, said contraceptives are “evil” and “anti-life.”

The critics won a temporary victory when the high court issued on March 19 a status quo ante order (SQAO) stopping the implementation of the RH law for 120 days. The law was supposed to take effect last March 30.

READ: Implementation of RH law begins Easter Sunday and SC stops RH law implementation

14 Anti-RH petitions

A total of 14 anti-RH petitions were separately filed before the SC by various individuals and religious groups. (Editor’s note: We earlier reported that 15 petitions were filed. We regret the error.)

The first petition was filed by lawyer Jo Imbong who called the RH law “illegal” because it “mocks the nation’s Filipino culture – noble and lofty in its values and holdings on life, motherhood, and family life.” 

WATCH: #TalkThursday with Jo Imbong 

The critics have a total of 55 minutes to argue their case Tuesday. The pro-RH camp will be given the same time, but they will have their turn most likely next week, on July 23. The magistrates may ask questions after the arguments.

On Tuesday afternoon, two former senators will argue against the RH law.

Former Sen Franciso “Kit” Tatad will give a 5-minute opening statement.

Former Senate President Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr will argue that the RH law violates the “autonomy of local governments” by requiring LGUs to promote reproductive health, according to an advisory issued by the Court. Pimentel is the architect of the Local Government Code. (His son and namesake Sen Aquilino Pimentel III voted against the RH law.)

They will be joined by Maria Concepcion Noche, Luisito Liban, and Luis Ma. Gil Gana. 

Noche will be given 20 minutes to argue. She is expected to point out that the RH law violates the “right to life” provision of the 1987 Constitution, that the SC may exercise judicial review over the issue, and that the SQAO should be extended, according to the same Court advisory.

Liban is expected to argue that the law violates constitutional guarantees on freedom of religion, speech, academic freedom, and proscription of involuntary servitude, the same advisory said. He intends to question RH law provisions imposing fines on health providers who refuse to perform RH activities and requiring marriage license applicants to undergo RH seminar before the issuance of license, among others. He will be given 15 minutes.

Gana intends to say that the law violates the Organic Act of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) by requiring LGUs’ promotion and support for RH efforts. He will be given 5 minutes.

Pro-RH arguments

The pro-RH camp is expected to present arguments next week, on Tuesday, July 23, the next schedule provided by the Supreme Court. 

Named as respondents in this case are senior government officials involved in implementing the RH law — Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa Jr, Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Education Secretary Armin Luistro, Health Secretary Enrique Ona, and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas. 

The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) will be representing them in court, however, although various pro-RH individuals and groups also filed at least 5 “motions to intervene” to help government argue its case.

The pro-RH petitioners include former health secretaries Esperanza Cabral, Jaime Galvez Tan, and Alberto Romualdez Jr. The sponsor of RH law in the House of Representatives, former Albay Rep Edcel Lagman, also filed a motion to intervene. 

“During the 13-year saga for the enactment of the Reproductive Health law, the herein movant (Lagman) and other reproductive health advocates have thoroughly studied the constitutionality of the reproductive health bill and they are of the firm position that that reproductive health law is free from any and all constitutional infirmities, and that it is absolutely and indubitably constitutional,” reads Lagman’s motion.  

The pro-RH petitioners maintained that the RH law does not violate the “right to life.” Contraceptives, they argued, are not abortifacients.

“The legislature, in enacting the RH Law, effectuated the constitutional prohibition against abortion. In defining abortifacients, the legislature implements the constitutional intent to protect life from inception,” the OSG argued in its motion before the SC.

The law also upholds freedom of religion because it is all about “informed choice,” it added. 

“The RH law complies with the constitutional mandate that government shall support the right and duty of parents of developing the moral character of the youth by prescribing reproductive health education for adolescents,” Lagman said in his separate motion. 

Judicial review?

The OSG also questioned the SC’s judicial review powers and highlighted the importance of the separation of powers among the 3 branches of government. 

“An act of the legislature approved by the executive, is presumed to be constitutional,” the OSG argued.

“The authority of this Honorable Court to decide constitutional questions rests on preliminary jurisdictional and prudential considerations necessary for the maintenance of a constitutional democracy and the separation of powers, ordained by the constitution. They assume greater importance given that it is this Honorable Court itself that determines compliance with these jurisdictional requirements,” the OSG said. 

“This Honorable Court should not allow non-winners in the democratic process to transform disagreements over policy choices, rightfully decided through the majoritarian process, into judicial issues,” it added. — with reports from Ace Tamayo/Rappler.com

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