Chief Justice takes up cudgels for RH law
MANILA, Philippines — "The solution is to get more people who think like you elected in Congress so right priorities will be set as you see fit. It is not for us to cure problems you see in Congress."
Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno took up the cudgels for the Reproductive Health (RH) law on Day 2 of the oral arguments on Tuesday, July 23.
She cemented the position she raised on Day 1: The Supreme Court is not the proper forum for their appeal to nullify the law that funds government distribution of what critics call "hazardous" contraceptives.
Anti-RH lawyer Luisito Liban argued that the RH law is "arbitrary" and thus violates the equal protection clause in the Constitution.
Why should there be a law to address maternal mortality, Liban argued, when there is no law for "serious illnesses" – like diabetes and heart diseases – which kill so many more Filipinos?
"There could be a problem if Congress would choose to cherry pick in a very obvious way. Serious problems are not taken care of but the not-so-serious problems are," he said.
To this, Sereno replied: "How can you raise arbitrariness if this has been debated for 13 years?"
That's when the Chief Justice suggested the "political solution" for anti-RH advocates is to get more allies elected.
Critics of the RH law maintain that contraceptives are abortifacients, a violation of the constitutional provision on right to life.
Instead of allocating billions of pesos for contraceptives, the government should spend the money on other purposes, like the construction of hospitals, Liban said.
Sereno reminded the lawyer that President Benigno Aquino III already said in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) that the government plans to build more hospitals. "He's doing that," she said.
Sereno cautioned Liban against going into the "wisdom" behind the passage of the RH law. It is the power of Congress, she said, because the Senate and the House of Representatives represent the people.
"It (passing laws) is the prerogative of Congress and that has not been set aside. Unless we arrogate unto us the role of being a Super Body," she added.
Following Sereno's line of questioning, Senior Justice Antonio Carpio said if they need to declare the RH law unconstitutional because it is arbitrary and it doesn't address other serious illness, "then we will have a lot of laws that we will have to strike down, counselor."
On Day 1 of the oral arguments on July 9, Sereno said the SC may have to exercise "judicial restraint" because the High Tribunal "may not be the best forum" to decide the issue.
Sereno stressed the "complexity" of the situation. She noted that members of the SC are not elected and yet are being asked to rule on a law that was passed by Congress and signed by the Office of the President.
The Chief Justice would later advise Liban to go back to his arguments explaining how the RH law violates religious freedom, the main issue he discussed in his opening statement.
Liban lost his focus when the justices started asking him questions. He repeated arguments already made on Day 1, including the supposed health dangers of contraceptives.
Liban explained in his opening statement how the RH law violates religious freedom.
While the RH law does not force health care providers to perform RH services if they consider it a "sin," it requires them to refer the person seeking RH services to others.
It puts a Catholic health care provider in a dilemma, he said. "By referring to another health care provider, the Catholic commits grave offense under the teachings of the Catholic Church."
Liban pointed out that a Catholic, by passing on the responsibility to deliver the "sinful" RH services to another, would be "leading another to commit a serious sin."
Liban said the RH law puts any Filipino Catholic in a difficult situation where he only has 2 choices:
1) Obey his religious beliefs at the risk of facing sanctions (meaning the Catholic neither performs RH services nor refers the person seeking RH services to another health care provider).
2) Obey the law to avoid criminal sanctions.
Liban said the only way Catholic healthcare providers can follow their religious belief is to keep quiet. But the law does not allow them to keep quiet. "The burden is great.... It violates the constitutional right to religion."
Sereno later told Liban she knows a Catholic woman who doesn't believe that taking contraceptives is sinful. Liban replied: She is not a practicing Catholic.
The CJ says she knows a Catholic woman who believes that taking contraceptives is not a sin;Liban says that she's not a practicing Catholic.— SC PIO (Official) (@SCPh_PIO) July 23, 2013
"If any person claiming to be Catholic disobey [religious teachings], how can he ever say that he is Catholic? How can one say he is Christian and not believe in Jesus?" Liban said.
'Poison' and contraindications
Liban found an ally in Justice Roberto Abad, who was the first to ask questions.
Abad echoed arguments made on Day 1 by anti-RH lawyer Maria Concepcion Noche that some contraceptives are "hazardous" to health. The justice cited various medical studies likening hormonal contraceptives to "poison."
"It would appear that this government-sponsored contraceptives are not altogether safe," Abad said.
In the exchange, Liban said that by "espousing" the RH law, the government is "institutionalizing those risks."
"Should Congress legislate a measure that will prevent a child through poison?" Abad asked Liban. "It (RH law) does."
Liban argued that by allowing hormonal contraceptives in the law, the government has arbitrarily declared hormonal contraceptives safe.
Carpio reiterated his position that the SC, composed of lawyers and not doctors, is not in the position to decide if hormonal contraceptives are hazardous. "In the absence of fraud, we defer to the Food and Drug Authority because we are not competent."
Justice Marvic Leonen made followup questions that sought to contest Abad's position.
Leonen asked: Are contraceptives dangerous drugs because they have contraindications?
Liban responded: "Studies say so, Your Honor."
That's when Leonen read the long list of contraindications of the drug Crestor or rosuvastatin calcium, which is meant to manage cholesterol.
"I'm taking that," said Liban.
Is it a dangerous drug because of its contraindications?
Liban said Crestor is different from contraceptives because it is "unique" and "it serves a purpose."
Leonen moved on to read the long list of contraindications for the common drug Paracetamol. Liban said contraceptives are not meds.
Leonen also followed up on Liban's argument that implementing the RH law means allowing the Philippines to be "assaulted by Western-sponsored culture not suitable to our culture."
"We already have a picture. A picture of the US. According to studies, young people as young as 12, 14, and 19 engage in multiple sex partners," Liban said.
Leonen asked Liban if it is an issue for the court if people have multiple sex partners.
Liban answered no.
The next session is scheduled for August 6.
One more lawyer from the anti-RH camp, Luis Ma. Gil Gana, will argue. He will discuss how the RH law supposedly violates the Organic Act of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) by requiring local government units to promote and support for RH efforts.
After anti-RH lawyers close their case, the supporters of the RH law will have their turn in presenting arguments that the controversial measure is constitutional. – Rappler.com