Editor’s note: The whole RH debate has been argued ad nauseam as this story, first published by Newsbreak in November 2002, shows. Almost a decade later, Congress is still rehashing the same old issues. Will the reproductive health bill finally become law?
MANILA, Philippines – If the surveys say many voters prefer candidates who favor family planning, it would be logical to expect candidates to go for it. Public officials might also be guided by that sentiment in shaping policy. It isn’t happening, though—not in these parts, where they risk incurring the ire of the politically influential Catholic Church.
In December 2000, a survey by Pulse Asia, the Futures Group, and the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) Foundation showed that the majority of voters were supportive of candidates who favor family planning.
The survey showed that 76 percent of the respondents would back candidates who advocate laws on population issues. Of the Catholic respondents, 94 percent said they would support candidates who are pro-family planning. Eighty percent of the 1,200 respondents also said they favored candidates supporting a program on women’s health. At least 69 percent said they would support candidates in favor of giving married couples free choice on what family planning method to use.
In a Catholic country where the mere use of contraceptives is regarded as sinful, such preferences may be considered a breakthrough. Many hoped that members of the 12th Congress, elected five months after the survey was released, would be guided by the survey results: meaning, they would pass much-needed measures to ensure programs supportive of family planning.
Now halfway through their term, there are indications that the survey respondents’ hopes would be in vain. They are up against a familiar adversary: the Catholic Church.
House Bill 4110, to be known as the “Reproductive Health Care Act of 2001,” seeks to make quality reproductive health care information and services available to every Juan and Juana de la Cruz. It is the reincarnation of similar bills filed in the past. Previous administrations had tried to undertake similar programs under different headings—among them, family planning and responsible parenthood—but ran aground on the issue of abortion.
Among the key provisions of Bill 4110 is the establishment of a reproductive health care program, which shall: •
• Provide information, education, and counseling on human sexuality, responsible parenthood, reproductive health and rights, and on the full range of legal and medically safe family planning methods regardless of marital status, sex, age—in schools, workplaces, communities.
• Increase people’s access to appropriate, affordable, quality reproductive health care services—including maternal, perinatal and postnatal education, care, and services.
• Ensure that reproductive health services have adequate and full range of supplies. • Develop services that promote male involvement, participation, and responsibility in reproductive health concerns.
• Undertake programs for the prevention of abortion and management of post-abortion complications.
• Develop programs that would enable adolescents to understand their sexuality and sexual responsibility and give them access, in case of pregnancy, to proper maternal health care.
• Undertake programs and services for the prevention and treatment of infertility. If passed, the legislative measure will expand the coverage of the national health insurance program to include the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, commodities, and supplies as health insurance benefits.
The measure will also prohibit requirements for third-party authorization in voluntary sterilizations and other voluntary sexual and reproductive health procedures. This means women need not ask their husbands to sign a consent form to be able to undergo procedures like tubal ligation—a current requirement that has discouraged many women from going through it.
When Interior Secretary Jose D. Lina became governor of Laguna, one of his first acts was to prevent the province’s health network from dispensing or providing services for all forms of contraception except the natural method. Soon after Lito Atienza won his second term as mayor of Manila, the city council passed a similar ordinance. If enacted, the proposed Reproductive Health Care Act of 2001 will make such actions of government officials illegal and punishable by imprisonment of one to six months and/or a fine of P20,000.
Filed by Aurora Rep. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, co-chairperson of the PLCPD for the House of Representatives, the bill has gained the support of around 60 congressmen already, says co-author Bukidnon Rep. Nereus Acosta. It has survived one emotionally charged public hearing so far.
Beyond that, however, not much headway is expected. Sen. Rodolfo Biazon, co-chairperson of the PLCPD and author of the Senate counterpart measure (SB 2325), says he is having trouble persuading colleagues to support the bill.
The trouble, some legislators say, is that those opposing the measure have labeled it as “pro-abortion.” Text messages have been circulated calling for its rejection. One such message says: “Let us unite and fight against HB 4110 that will allow even a 13-year-old to have an abortion without her parents’ permission!”
Albay Rep. Krisel Lagman Luistro, PLCPD board treasurer, says a bishop from her area approached her to express his objection. Biazon says students from Catholic schools told him they were asked to pray for the defeat of the bill, which they were told sought to legalize abortion.
“Some are even calling us [the] Antichrist.”
“It is intellectual dishonesty,” Acosta says of the negative perceptions about the bill. In no way does the bill make abortion legal, supporters of the bill point out, saying that abortion is expressly prohibited in the 1987 Constitution.
What the bill says is this: “While nothing in this Act changes the law on abortion, government shall ensure that women seeking care for post-abortion complications shall be treated and counseled in a humane, nonjudgmental, and compassionate manner.”
With the May 2004 elections only a little more than a year away, the bill appears to be going nowhere. Congress is preoccupied with various priority measures, and the bill is not one of them. Some congressmen who have promised to support it have backed off, apparently intimidated by threats of retribution from organizations aligned with the Catholic Church come May 2004.
It is understandable for politicians to fear the church, says Acosta. “There’s an implied pressure that they will not support you in the next election if you don’t give in to them.” And, he adds, politicians, by nature, “are creatures of expediency.”
What could probably save the bill from gathering dust in the House archives is a certification of urgency from the President. As an economist, President Arroyo should know that population growth is a problem, says Negros Occidental Rep. Jose Carlos Lacson.
But some legislators don’t expect the President to make this move. From the start, Acosta says, the President has been clear that she favors the stand of the Catholic Church—which is for families to practice natural family planning methods.
The President’s religious upbringing may have something to do with it, some may say. Educated in Catholic schools, she goes to Mass every day. There is another reason, some legislators say. Like them, the President is watching out for 2004.
And in this country, any politician who wants to win an election would not want to go against the wishes of the Catholic Church, regardless of what the surveys say. Newsbreak
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