Up close and personal

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
For the first time in the RH law oral arguments, real-life experiences of women were discussed

Marites Dañguilan VitugPia Cayetano brought in-your-face reality to the session hall of the Supreme Court, pulling the justices away from their perch to the cramped one-room homes of women who died during childbirth.

On the fourth round of the oral arguments on the RH law on August 13, the senator and principal author of the RH law, through slides showing vivid photographs and alarming statistics on maternal deaths, as well as stories of women, debunked the anti-RH position that “maternal deaths pale in comparison with the number of deaths associated with serious illnesses.”

Fifteen mothers die daily, she said, or more than 5,000 a year, compared to, say, 1,000 deaths annually caused by dengue. There’s more: teenage pregnancies are on the rise and of the 3.1 million pregnancies a year, 1.4 million are unplanned. Add to this the fact that “nearly half a million abortions occur in the Philippines.”

It was the first time in this series—the fifth and last of the oral arguments is scheduled August 20—that a counsel used her personal experiences (as a mother) to defend the RH law. Cayetano told the justices, a few of whom were squeamish, about her choice to use contraceptives after her fourth child died 9 months after birth because of chromosome disorder. The baby couldn’t see and couldn’t swallow food.

“I could not bear to see another child [after this],” she told the Court, her voice breaking.

She also confidently shared, in reply to badgering questions from Justice Roberto Abad, who has consistently and vociferously opposed the RH law, that she teaches her children sex and reproductive health as well as those of her friends who are not comfortable talking about the subject.

“When I was pregnant, I told my child that there was a baby inside me,” she said, “instead of saying that it was a watermelon or balloon.”

Democracy in action

Cayetano also let the justices in on the protracted (more than 2 years) and very public process that the Senate went through before it passed the RH bill to emphasize that this landmark legislation is a product of the “full glory” of democracy and debate. The committee on health, which she chairs, conducted 7 hearings in a year after which interpellation spread out over 1.5 years wherein 11 senators proposed more than 70 amendments of which 54 were accepted.

Similarly, former Congressman Edcel Lagman, the main author in the House of Representatives, who argued before Cayetano did, told the Court that the law has a long history—it took almost 14 years before the bill was passed—because all concerns of the opposition were addressed.

Fixed positions?

It was apparent, though, that many of the justices have made up their minds. And some of the justices no longer seemed interested as they left the session hall for extended periods.

Abad is the frontline RH law buster while Justices Teresita de Castro and Jose Perez look like a back-up duo although they are civil and far less strident.

Since the third round of oral arguments, when Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza opened the arguments for the RH law, Abad never seemed satisfied with any of the answers of the pro-RH law counsels. He is totally against the law because, mainly, it supposedly allows abortifacients and it opens the floodgates to promiscuity by promoting contraceptives which is equal to encouraging “sex without responsibility” and requiring public schools to conduct sex education.

Abad has the tendency to reduce issues to absurd levels. Here’s an example. Abad told Cayetano: “Your solution to 5,000 maternal deaths a year is to provide IUDs to 23 million women of childbearing age and put them at risk because IUDs have a high possibility of causing cancer…So this is your answer?” He then added that his first wife died of cancer.

Cayetano replied that the way he framed the solution was “false.” There are a wide range of choices, she said, and the RH law provides education as well. Besides, she pointed out that the possibility that contraceptives cause cancer is very low, in the same category of TV and microwaves.

Abad has profound fears that the RH law will make teenagers sexually wild since they would have access to contraceptives. Cayetano tried to assuage him by saying that, even without the RH law, teenage pregnancies are on the rise, with the latest recorded figure at 200,000.

She capped her argument using analogies: requiring drivers to use seatbelts doesn’t mean they are encouraged to drive fast; and providing life vests to passengers on board ships doesn’t mean they are goaded to jump into the water.

For his part, Perez, since day one, looked at the RH law as a coercive population control measure and De Castro has made known her aversion to contraceptives because it’s like putting “poison” in her body. She was aghast that the law “elevates” women’s access to safe and satisfying sex to a right.

The defenders of the RH law are equally obvious. Justice Marvic Leonen seems to be the antidote to Abad, often stressing the point that laws are presumed constitutional and that policy is set by the executive and legislative departments.

On the argument that the law leads to promiscuity, Leonen prefaced his questions to Cayetano by saying that “physics can be used for bad things, like making a bomb.” Same with sex, which can be used for “immoral ends.”

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Justice Antonio Carpio have, during the series of oral arguments, shown their position to uphold the RH law.

These public sessions seem to be no longer of much value to the Court. At this point, they are more theatre than anything else, showing the quality of discourse in Padre Faura, among the men and women in robes whom we thought were demigods. – Rappler.com

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.