RH law: The long and rough road

Carmela Fonbuena

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RH law: The long and rough road
The RH law is a culmination of the hard work of a battalion of RH advocates - inside and outside Congress - and a President who stepped up to complete the job

MANILA, Philippines – Thirteen years and 4 months since it was first filed in Congress, the Philippines has enacted a law funding the distribution of free contraceptives, requiring government hospitals to provide reproductive health (RH) services, and mandating public schools to teach sex education.

It’s not a perfect law. The delivery of RH services remains the primary responsbility of the national government – not local government units – and optional for most private hospitals. Except in special cases, minors need parental consent to access family planning methods. Sex education is also optional for private schools.

Still, it’s a big leap for the Philippines where the powerful Catholic Church launched a war against “evil” contraceptives. The new law illegalizes contraception bans previously in place in Manila City and posh community Ayala, Alabang.

It was a long and rough road to the passage of the RH bill. It’s a culmination of the hard work of a battalion of RH advocates – inside and outside Congress – and a President who stepped up to complete the job. (READ: Aquino on RH bill: From half-baked to urgent)

It was impossible without the allies of President Benigno Aquino III in the Liberal Party (LP) – both in the Senate and the House of Representatives – who worked their magic to get the final votes needed to pass the measure.

It was a harder battle in the House than the Senate. The truth is it could have lost if not for the series of calculated moves taken to keep it alive.

There were several meetings between the bishops, solons, and RH advocates between September and November to attempt a compromise bill.

Initially, Aquino would only call House members to meetings in Malacañang to explain why an RH law is needed. But when crunch time came, Rappler sources confirm that he joined party leaders in personally phoning representatives. The instructions: vote in favor or skip the session.

The 11th hour certification of the RH bill as urgent was the necessary finishing touch to make sure that the Malacañang timeline is followed – have an RH law before Christmas.

“It (certification) was driven more by the lack of physical time in the Senate. But it helped that the bill was moving positively in the House. It also signaled the President’s desire to put a positive closure to the debate. Somehow, things converged at the last minute,” LP stalwart and budget Secretary Butch Abad – also a key player in the passage of the RH bill – told Rappler.

The first steps

The Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) traces the first step of the RH law to House Bill 8110 filed on August 16, 1999. It was the 11th Congress.

The proposed “Integrated Population and Development Act of 1999” pushed for “universal access to reproductive health services, including family planning and sexual health.”

Five solons filed the first bill and among them was the daughter of 15th Congress RH bill sponsor Albay Rep Edcel Lagman – Cielo Krisel Lagman-Luistro. The other four are Luwalhati Antonino, Carlos Cojuangco, Bellaflor Angara-Castillo, Nereus Acosta, and Edith Yotono-Villanueva.

Nothing came out of HB 8110. In the succeeding 12th Congress, Rep Bellaflor Angara filed a similar bill. HB 4110 was the first bill to be called the “RH bill.”

The bill was refiled and refiled until it made progress in the 14th Congress. It reached the stage in the legislative process where the entire House could debate it in plenary. The national debate, the war, began. Lagman, Iloilo Rep Janette Garin, and Akbayan Rep Risa Hontiveros took the cudgels for the RH bill.

As the Catholic Church launched its war against the RH bill, big names also started coming out to support the measure. It was during the 14th Congress that the professors of the UP School of Economics and professors of Ateneo De Manila University, among others, issued statements supporting it.

The seeds were planted.

“Let me say that this is the baby of the House. We initiated this in the House. The version in the Senate was a replica of the the House version,” an elated Lagman told reporters the night the measure was ratified.

The passage of the RH bill is the gold medallion Lagman wished for his last term in the House.

Belmonte’s promise

It was Lagman who withstood in plenary hours and hours of relentless attacks coming from the critics of the bill.

“Everyday was a struggle and everyday was difficult. The length of interpellation and debate as well as the period of individual amendments would really be trying times. You have to be patient in order to see through the enactment of this measure,” he said.

But Lagman is the first to credit the House leadership for its successful passage. “The commitment of the House leadership to have the bill voted upon was a great help. It was unlike in the previous Congresses, where leadership was either negative or ambivalent,” said Lagman.

House Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte Jr is pro-RH. Quezon City had a similar measure when he was Mayor.

Belmonte promised to put the RH bill to a vote, whatever the result to put a closure to the long debated measure. How it got there was the responsibility of House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II, also pro-RH.

In corporate parlance, Belmonte is the CEO. Gonzales is the COO. It is the task of Gonzales to make sure plenary sessions proceed according to the agenda.

But they had to tread very carefully. The RH bill is one for the books. It wasn’t like other bills that they could ram down everyone’s throats. Never has the recent Congress seen a proposed measure so divisive. Never has plenary debates been as highly charged. (READ: Liberal Party divided on RH bill)

Lagman and Garin continued to defend the bill in the 15th Congress. Akbayan Rep Arlene “Kaka” Bag-ao took on the cause from Hontiveros.

The debates took forever. It was science versus religion. It was going nowhere.

But all of a sudden in August 2012,  the House leadership prevailed over the members to agree to vote on the termination of the debates. They set the date on August 7, 2012.

Belmonte took the risk. There was a possibility that the RH bill could have lost that vote. But President Aquino stepped in.

Aquino and his men

On August 6, a day before the scheduled vote, Aquino called all members of the House to a lunch meeting in Malacañang to appeal to them to vote in favor of terminating debates on the RH bill so it can proceed to the period of amendments.

It was a surprise move but it wasn’t too difficult a request. Even the most rabid critics of the RH bill accommodated the President. Anyway, the RH bill still had a long way to go in the legislative process. (READ: House ends debates on RH bill)

The war was just beginning to heat up and critics were successfully using parliamentary tactics to prevent the bill from further moving forward. (READ: Tool vs RH bill: Privilege Speeches)

The period of amendments did not start until November 26, nearly four months since they ended the debates. (READ: Small victory for RH bill in House)

December came and there were 3 session weeks left in the year. Time was  running out. It was time for the President to step in again.

On December 3, Aquino called the House members to another meeting to Malacañang to appeal to them to finally put the RH bill to a vote.

It would happen 9 days later.

Close vote!

The President’s support for the RH bill has to be put in context. It must pass because he staked his name on it. LP had to back him because losing the vote would reflect terribly on the party.

December 12 was the moment of truth. It was an emotional second reading vote that took 5 hours to finish because many solons felt it was necessary to explain their votes – particularly to the bishops present in plenary.

Based on its own count, the House leadership expected a victory by about 10 votes. But they knew the Catholic Church was working as hard as they were. What stronger message can be sent than sending Malacañang’s armada to the House?

LP president and DOTC Secretary Manuel Roxas II, budget secretary Butch Abad, Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang, and Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda trooped to the House. They stayed in the South Lounge, the hang out place of solons that is off limits to the media.

But to their surprise, some of the anti-RH representatives they thought they persuaded to cast “Yes” votes didn’t deliver. Phone lines burned in the middle of voting to win over “swayable” anti-RH members who have not voted. Gonzales’s men – members of the House Rules Committee – were going around the plenary courting last-minute votes.

In spite all those efforts, it was a victory by only 9 votes — 113 to 104. Among the LP members, 43 voted in favor and 26 voted against. The vote was split down the middle for coalition allies Nationalist People’s Coalition (17-15 in favor) and Nacionalista Party (8-8).

RH advocates celebrated the victory but also feared that the vote could change in the 3rd and final reading.

If the 3rd reading vote was wider, 133 -79, it was because Aquino had already certified it as urgent. The additional 20 votes is the difference between the 27 lawmakers who were absent in the second reading vote but showed up to cast yes votes in the 3rd reading vote and the 7 who previously voted yes but were absent in the final vote.

LP, too, worked harder on its members. The LP vote would change to 51 in favor and 15 against. Among those absent are key party leaders known to be anti-RH.

Lahat na yun. Nakausap. Nakumbinsi. Natakot. Napaliwanagan,” a House leader explained.

Church lobby

If there’s anyone who still doubts the power of the Catholic Church, the second reading vote in the House of Representatives is proof.

As vigorously as the Aquino administration, the Catholic Church persevered to push its agenda. (READ: Bishops wanted the vote to happen as close as possible to the 2013 campaign period)

The bishops used all the tricks in the hat. Solons received SMS messages from their bishops, invitations to meetings, images of saints, and letters.

Many of the solons were afraid. Whatever the surveys say on general support for the RH bill, some believed in the Catholic vote.

Minority Leader Quezon Rep Danilo Suarez said there remains religious community leaders who will always follow what the Catholic Church says. That, he said, is the Catholic vote.

The House minority bloc was a big loss to RH bill. Suarez and at least 7 other members who were originally RH bill co-authors later withdrew their support.

Two reasons are being cited for the change of heart: RH bill sponsor Lagman’s tiff with Suarez over the House minority leadership position and the return of former President now Pampanga Rep Gloria Arroyo to the House after a months-long house arrest. She is known to be anti-RH.

Church-goers themselves, other solons were afraid of the treatment they and their children would get from the bishops. After the bill was passed, pro-RH solons spoke of uncomfortable Christmas gatherings in the presence of their bishops.

It was frustrating, said Batanes Rep Henedina Abad. “I have been formed within the paradigm of faith that does justice. My faith has always been a source of strength. Catholic leaders, priests and bishops had always been my source of strength so it is so frustrating when they have different standards in terms of what is right and what is wrong. This is more personal rather than political,” she told Rappler after the ratification of the RH bill in the House.

RH advocates claim they always had the vote to pass the RH bill. But they acknowledged that they started losing votes since the anti-RH rally that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) organized in the People’s Power Monument in February 2011.

In September, a Malacanang official mediated a meeting between the bishops and the House members to attempt a compromise bill.

At least three meetings were held in a hotel in Makati. Bishops actively contributed inputs to the RH bill. The result is the substitute bill that Gonzales presented to the plenary on November 26. In a funny twist of events, Lagman had to protect the bishops’ amendments against anti-RH solons who wanted some of them deleted.

In spite the bishops’ inputs, the Church did not – could not – support the measure. Some of the bishops who sat down with the representatives showed up in the House gallery on voting day.

But the efforts were not wasted. The cooperation shown by the bishops succeeded in persuading House members – who supported the measure but would rather not antagonize the Church – to cast “yes” votes.

Senate junks Enrile’s amendments

Dynamics at the Senate were totally different from the House of Representatives.

Two Senate leaders were the most rabid critics of the RH bill: Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III.

The plagiarism issue against Sotto was both a boon and a bane. It put Sotto – who poised to be the biggest critic of the bill – on the defensive. But the issue also diverted the Senate’s attention away from the bill itself. Malacañang was expecting the Senate to approve the measure much earlier than the House but they lost a lot of time.

The LP members worked on the senators to secure the necessary vote. But “test vote” happened when Enrile proposed killer amendments and lost.

“It became clear [that the RH bill had the vote in the Senate] during the voting on amendments propounded by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile. It helped that the House passed on 2nd reading. That accelerated Senate deliberations,” said Abad.

The final vote was 13-8 in favor of the RH bill.

President Aquino’s certification was necessary, most especially for the Senate. Time was running out. The Senate was planning to put it to 3rd reading vote on the last day of session for 2012. That would have pushed the RH bill timeline to 2013.

It is widely believed that with the looming presidential elections, the next Congress is not going to be a good environment for divisive measures like the RH bill. One prospective presidential candidate is anti-RH.

Aquino understands this. He himself softened on the RH bill during the 2010 campaign.

At the end of the day, there was a golden opportunity to pass the RH bill and Malacañang grabbed it. – Rappler.com

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