Reconciliation post-RH Law
Last Dec 21, 2012, President Aquino, without any fanfare and grand gestures, signed into law Republic Act No. 10354, otherwise known as the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012.
The debate over the RH Bill was anything but quiet, lighting up both mass and social media and the halls of Congress like a forest wildfire, with passionate arguments for and against state-sponsored provision of family planning and contraceptive services.
The poor’s plight, the burden of budgeting for large families, and the need for modern, reliable, and accessible methods of family planning to protect mothers, had been raised by those in favor; the intrinsic sacral and moral value of human life and sexuality, cherished within the traditional Catholic identity, and the economic value of a young and growing population, raised by those against.
It is a debate that has seen passion and pain on both sides, like a flooding river exploding beyond its banks. I do not exaggerate when I say familial and friendship bonds have been severely tested because of the RH controversy, even among families of lawmakers. Central to the issue has been the role not just of the religious hierarchy, but also of religion itself, in public debate and the policy process, as the faithful (not just Catholics alone) struggle to reconcile their tenets of faith with the demands of democracy and development.
Both the debate in society and the contentious second-reading voting in the House of Representatives illustrated the challenge of resolving the debate. Surveys reveal majority support for the RH Bill, even among Catholics. Yet many of those who opposed the bill in Congress and outside did so with the same pride and integrity as supporters.
Even if the manner of their opposition could provoke derision from a rational perspective, we should respect the conviction of those who voted “No” in the same manner that we should also respect those who supported its passage.
As we seek ways to reconcile, it is best to begin first with knowing what Congress passed and the President signed into law. Ignorance will not help us move forward.
Highlights of the RH Law
The fact is that the RH Bill is now a law of the Republic, and the President, barring judicial intervention, has the obligation of seeing to its effective, just and balanced implementation. Indeed, it would be tragic if, after all the acrimony, we end up with a law that is not implemented like many good legislation in this country.
In my view, the protracted debate, even if it was too long (lasting 13 years), actually improved the bill and, thanks in part to the opponents of the bill, we have a much more balanced and a better law than originally proposed.
Among others, it is clear that abortifacient methods are prohibited (although the definition of abortion as preventing implantation of a fertilized ovum is controversial), freedom of conscience is respected, and there is neither a mandate to reduce our population nor a preference for smaller families.
Below is a summary of what I believe are the most important provisions under the RH Law:
- It affirms in a balanced way various state policies related to the right of health, including reproductive health, the rights of women, couples and families, and the protection of the life of the mother and the unborn. The law provides for spousal and parental consent in specific instances although safeguards to protect the individual rights of mothers or those availing of a service or procedure are also included.
- In my view, the RH Law’s most important provision is the guarantee by the State to provide “universal access to medically-safe, non-abortifacient, effective, legal, affordable, and quality reproductive health care services, methods, devices, supplies which do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum as determined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and relevant information and education thereon according to the priority needs of women, children and other underprivileged sectors.”
- In implementing the above policy, the State shall promote and provide information and access, without bias, to all methods of family planning, including effective natural and modern methods which have been proven medically safe, legal, non-abortifacient, and effective in accordance with scientific and evidence-based medical research standards. If this “no bias” principle is actually implemented, it will go a long way in reducing acrimony in the law’s implementation.
- The RH law also provides that the State shall also provide funding support to promote modern natural methods of family planning, especially the Billings Ovulation Method, consistent with the needs of acceptors and their religious convictions.
- The RH Law does not set demographic or population targets, and in fact, states that the mitigation, promotion and/or stabilization of the population growth rate is incidental to the advancement of reproductive health. Further, each family has the right to determine its ideal family size: although the State is mandated to equip each parent with the necessary information on all aspects of family life, including reproductive health and responsible parenthood, in order to make that determination.
- Religious freedom is actually respected in the RH Law. Hospitals owned and operated by a religious group do not have to provide services contrary to its beliefs although these hospitals shall immediately refer the person seeking such care and services to another health facility, which is conveniently accessible. The conscientious objection of a health care service provider based on his/her ethical or religious beliefs is also respected, accompanied by an obligation for referral. These exceptions do not, however, apply in emergency cases.
- The RH Law provides that no person shall be denied information and access to family planning services, whether natural or artificial. Minors however will not be allowed access to modern methods of family planning without written consent from their parents or guardian/s except when the minor is already a parent or has had a miscarriage.
- Finally, age- and development-appropriate reproductive health education to adolescents (10-19 years) is mandated for public schools, which program shall be based on consultations with parents-teachers-community associations, school officials and other interest groups. Private schools may adopt the program at their own option, but consistent with religious freedom, are not obliged to do so.
What now for the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church hierarchy’s inability to prevail over the RH Bill’s passage doesn’t mean that the Catholic perspective on sexuality is irrelevant to contemporary life. To quote Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, “The vote in favor of the RH Bill in Congress is unfortunate and tragic. But we do not take it as a defeat of truth – for truth shall prevail, especially the truth about human life, marriage and the family.”
In this case, the truth Cardinal Tagle speaks of is the natural and causal linkage between sex and conception of human life, to which the Church is thus obligated to defend as a consequence of the sacredness of human life.
As I have written before, based on my understanding of the Church teaching on contraception as articulated in 1968 by Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, “responsible parenthood designates the intelligent and free manner the spouses have at their disposal to fulfill their mission of cooperating with God in the transmission of life.”
As a result, every marital act that is intentionally rendered unfruitful such as abortion and the use of artificial contraception is evil in itself since it is contrary to the procreative purpose of marriage; results in the moral decay that ensues in sex without consequence; and harms true love and deprives God of His sovereign role as the supreme giver of life.
As Pope John Paul II explained in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, artificial birth control depersonalizes and exploits sexuality. Thus the original import of human sexuality, which is the giving of self as a gift and acceptance of another, becomes distorted.
As I also have written previously, cutting through the theological language, the Church teaching on contraception is above all about love – the love between husband and wife, love for children and family that is the fruit of that love, and ultimately the love of God that forgives us and that enables us to be faithful to the Word in spite of our sinfulness and scarce resources. The teaching is also about faith – as without faith, the teaching does not make sense. This is a beautiful message and the Church should not be ashamed of it.
Unfortunately this theme of love was not communicated well during the RH bill debate. In fact this teaching was confused and demeaned by such toxic statements as “all contraception is abortion,” “excommunication is a possibility,” or “no compromise with evil.” As a result, the message got lost and the Catholic Church was/is accused of being a bully with a medieval mindset.
Rational discourse got lost along the way in the debate and name-calling on all sides became the norm. Indeed, one unfortunate consequence of the way the debate unfolded is the impression that we have a Church that does not understand the challenge of secularism and modernity. While non-believers may not care abut this, it pains those of us who love the Church and recognize its importance in our lives and in our society.
As Jesuit priest Fr Jack Carroll pointed out in a widely circulated piece – “a victory for the ‘prochoice’ forces, ‘over the dead bodies of the bishops,’ can further weaken the moral authority of the latter at a time when this is most badly needed in many areas, including defense of a whole range of family values. For from where I sit, after some 25 years of pastoral and social involvement in Payatas, I see the family as very much at risk – and not primarily from contraception. Infidelity, multiple families, separation and second ‘marriages,’ abandonment of families by one or both parents, as well as drugs, alcoholism and sheer poverty are the main destructive forces.”
I understand, of course, that the message of love at the core of Catholic teaching is, in fact, hard to understand and accept, given the pressures of marital life, household economics, and the challenges and injustices that women and children face in Philippine society. And it is quickly dismissed by RH Law supporters, noting the statistics of unwanted children; of poor families having to space children’s education and development instead of births; of mothers dying from childbirth-related complications.
This is where adult evangelization and catechesis that accompanies serious Catholics moving toward a mature faith comes in, and becomes critical to changing minds and hearts. This is the real challenge before the Catholic Church as it discerns its next move on the RH debate.
Path to reconciliation
Catholic organizations have promised to campaign against the reelection/election of RH Bill supporters. Based on the past, a solid Catholic bloc vote does not appear to exist in this country, but that could change with an effective campaign. This could be tested in the 2013 May elections especially for the Senate where prominent supporters and opponents of the RH bill are running.
Personally, I look forward to a Catholic vote if it will also mean support for reforms that will eliminate graft and corruption, ensure social justice, and protect the environment.
On a more constructive note, the Church in the Philippines can (and does) extend its traditional services of charity, education, and social advocacy to address the very issues the RH Bill is meant to address: poverty, health, education, human rights, and social welfare.
Cardinal Tagle called for as much: “This vote leads us to further commit the Church…to the service of the poor, of the family, of women, of infants and children…to promote the sanctity of human life and of the human person, the integral education of the youth, the access of the poor to social and medical services, the preservation of the true meaning of marriage, and stewardship of creation. We call on all Filipinos to work towards healing, and journey together humbly and justly as children of God.”
Consistent with Cardinal Tagle’s message, what I pray for as a Catholic, is that the Church response to the passage of the RH Bill be inspired, positive, open-minded, forgiving and charitable even as it must maintain its integrity of faith and belief in the truth.
For those who pushed for and succeeded in passing the RH Law, I wish more generosity for and less judgment of those with whom they disagree, while they work as hard to implement the new law.
And what I hope, as a citizen and as a dean of a Catholic School of Government, is that in living in a Philippines with a new RH Law, every citizen can be guided by her necessities and by conscience – by faith as well as by reason – to fearlessly love what (and who) is rightfully deserving of love. This is the only way we can move on and be reconciled as a society and nation. – Rappler.com
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