On August 6, the House of Representatives voted to bring the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill into a period of amendment, ending house debates and bringing the bill one step closer to being passed.
First proposed in 1998 with the goal of bringing the Philippine’s reproductive health system ‘up to par’, the bill has since been rewritten several times by various authors and has come to be one of the most controversial issues the country faces today.
The bill was included in President Aquino’s list of priority bills, and a primary source of conflict comes with the Catholic Church’s opposition and the members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
According to an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles said that, “Aquino declared an open war, a head-on collision against us and against the Catholic Church.” This came after the president gave reference to “responsible parenthood” in his July State of the Nation Address (SONA).
Opposition of the faithful
The main proposal of the RH bill is that it provides information and access to both natural and modern family planning methods that are ‘safe and legal, and caters to the needs of women with post-abortion complications, incorporates sex education into the educational system, and provides reproductive health care services’.
Though the Church is very vocal in its stand against the Bill’s passage in its current form, it does not object to the entirety of the bill; the very fundamental opposition of the Catholic hierarchy is in the inclusion of contraceptives in the program.
Sections 7 and 10 of the bill make mention of provisions for modern family planning methods. Under these is the use of contraceptives such as condoms, which the CBCP disapproves of for the reason that it promotes promiscuity especially among the unmarried, and an “anti-life” attitude in people that would soon lead to the acceptance of abortion and other associated social ills.
Such opposition has been the main cause of the delay of the passage of the bill, and is in some ways indicative of the Church’s influence over the country and the political leverage it holds over Philippine lawmakers.
With the 2013 midterm elections just around the corner, the CBCP has already expressed its support for anti-RH (pro-life) candidates, and has started its campaign against pro-RH candidates. In a report by CBCP news, Msgr. Joselito Asis, secretary general of the CBCP, says that “[CPCB] will already identify the pro-life candidates and convince voters against electing the anti-life ones.”
After this statement was released by the CBCP and just a week before the house vote, six co-authors of the RH bill withdrew their support, including House Minority leader Danilo Suarez, who did not comment on whether the Church had anything to do with their decision.
In the light of such an issue, the palace, although not making any remarks as to whether or not the RH Bill would affect next year’s elections, encouraged lawmakers to take a stand on the issue not based on possible political implications but on the effects it will have on the country as a social package.
“This should not be a vote as to whether ‘Will I be re-elected if I don’t vote on this bill or not,’” says presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda in an article from GMA News, “I hope the congressmen realize that this is a vote on the future of our nation.”
With the Philippines being a predominantly Catholic country, with 82.9% of the population Roman Catholic and Aglipayan, the Church already has a large audience over which it holds an influence. However, how much of this percentage will adhere to church standings is questionable. Pro-RH advocate blogs have stated that only a small segment of Catholics will explicitly follow the word (or ‘vote’) of their diocesan bishop.
According to Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, the direction the RH bill takes will show if religion is a factor to be considered at all in the passing of a bill.
“We’ll see if the politicians will be so wary of confronting the Catholic Church in the light of the next elections or their own re-elections that they will step backwards and completely ignore the prodding of the advocates of the RH bill,” she said in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
Senator Pia Cayetano adds that regardless of Catholicism being the dominant religion in the country, the bill cannot be written to observe the beliefs of only one religion for it must take into account the welfare of all the citizens of the country.
The CBCP’s disapproval goes beyond just that of politicians’. The Church representatives have warned that Catholic schools supporting the bill may be stripped of their affiliation with the Church.
To add, in a separate report from News, Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma refused to meet with the members of a pro-RH Catholic group, saying that they were “not authentic” and “are not recognized as Catholics.”
Besides the Catholic Church and the CBCP, the Imam Council of the Philippines, as well as a few Protestant Christian groups such as the Intercessors of the Philippines and Christ the Living Stone fellowship.
Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is one noted supporter of the anti-RH side.
During the mass pro-life prayer rally held last August 4, Church leaders had said that they were welcome to having any leaders who were in favor of junking the bill, regardless of political affiliation.
Party-lists also in support of the church are Ang ProLife, Buhay, AA Kasyoso, ALE Party-list, An Waray, ANAD Party-list, and LPGMA. Youth involvement in the Anti-RH sector centers on schools such as the University of Santo Tomas, and the University of Asia & the Pacific. The Catalyst, UA&P’s student government, is one of the student councils that are leading the youth effort against the Bill, in addition to the Youth United for the Philippines (YUP!).
On the other hand, the Akbayan party-list and the Makabayan party-list bloc, composed of Bayan Muna, Anakpawis, ACT Teachers, women’s party-list Gabriela, and youth party-list Kabataan, openly support the bill citing the need for a better health care system to cater to the needs of women and the poor. However, it is pushing for the amendment of sections 3, 12, and 25, all of which talk about and provide measures for population control.
Representatives of the bloc reasoned in their proposed amendments that “it perpetuates the wrong notion that blames a burgeoning population, and specifically women’s wombs, for the rising poverty in the country.”
The Student Council Alliance of the Philippines (SCAP) is directly affiliated with RH Agenda and the FilipinoFreethinkers, as well as Akbayan. DLSU USG President Jana Cabuhat, Chairperson of SCAP, says in Filipino, “It’s hard to distinguish the genuine backers of the Bill because of the wide supporter base.” La Salle and the Ateneo de Manila University are among many universities with vocal pro-RH elements, such as the Facebook organization Lasallians for RH.
“Both camps have their backers for the political machinery, especially for those parties which fund rallies, and of course, they influence the media agencies and press that covers the rallies,” admits Cabuhat.
Four major parties expressed that they will impose no particular stand on its members. These parties are the Liberal Party (LP), Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), Nacionalista Party (NP), and the National Unity Party (NUP).
Despite its initial win in congress, the bill will still face problems if it moves on to the Senate.
Senators Santiago, Cayetano, and Panfilo Lacson, all co-authors of the bill, together with Senators Edgardo Angara, Sergio Osmeña III, and Ferdinand Marcos Jr., strongly back the bill.
The anti-RH side meanwhile is supported by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto, and senators Aquilino Pimentel III, Antonio Trillanes IV, and Manuel Villar Jr.
The remaining members of the senate have chosen to not take any sides as of the moment, citing the need for clarification of certain parts of the bill as the reason.
Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, shares in another article released by the Inquirer that most of the senators agree that the country is in need of such a bill, but that “its passage really depends on the final form of the bill.”
The bill is also backed by United Nations and the World Health Organization, describing the bill as one that will aid in the alleviation of poverty and in the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The controversy that surrounds the bill is one demonstration of the division between the Church and state.
Before the final version was released, the president met with several Church leaders to discuss how the RH bill can be modified to accommodate the Church’s concerns. The main object had been clarified to be the presence of contraceptives, although all provisions stating potentially abortive services (less ‘abortifacient contraceptives’) have been stricken off.
Alan Cayetano goes on to say that the President’s efforts represent “his best in finding a middle ground… that will bring people who are at opposite sides of the issue together.”