[People] Reproductive Health: Sidelined but Irrepressible By Walden Bello

Reproductive Health: Sidelined but Irrepressible

By Walden Bello
May 21, 2012

When the Reproductive Health Bill (House Bill 4244) made it past Committee on Population early in 2011, legislators and civil society organizations supporting RH were ecstatic. They had reason to be, for after 14 years of being bottled up in committee, the RH bill had blasted its way to the plenary and appeared to have the momentum.

The Pro-RH Legislative Strategy

Riding on this momentum, the strategy of the pro-RH forces centered on two moves: 1) getting the President of the Republic of the Philippines to declare himself for the RH bill; and 2) getting the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate to call for an early vote on the measure.

The pro-RH forces were successful in getting the President to declare himself in favor of the bill. After initially toying with the idea of crafting an RH bill that would be “more sensitive” to the concerns of the Roman Catholic Church, President Benigno Aquino III, perhaps realizing there was no appeasing the Church hierarchy on the issue, finally decided to support the bill drafted by Senate and House proponents of RH. This was a major victory.

However, the RH forces’ attempt to follow up on this major step forward by extracting a commitment from the President to actively push the pro-administration coalition in the House to take a vote on the issue was less successful. The president’s reluctance appeared to stem from a combination of a desire not to infringe on the independence of the legislature and a sense that the administration’s parliamentary contingent was deeply divided on the issue.

Getting the Speaker of the House of Representatives to call for an early vote has been more difficult than persuading the president to publicly support the bill. Rep. Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte is pro-RH. Indeed, he is frank in telling people how he cannot understand “why any legislator would be against this bill.” But he remains hesitant to call for a vote. According to some pro-RH advocates, his reluctance might stem from a number of factors, among them, the desire of someone oriented toward compromise to avoid confrontation with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, an unwillingness to trigger division in the majority coalition that he leads, and lack of confidence that the numbers are there to “decisively” pass the bill. Some observers say he fears that a defeat or narrow victory might be viewed as a major blow to his leadership, leading to its being contested by other forces. Others say, however, that the Speaker, a careful strategist, is simply waiting for the right opportunity to strike and clinch the bill.

As for the situation in the Senate, it has turned out to be more precarious than that in the House. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and the Majority Leader Tito Sotto have emerged as vociferous foes of the measure. While Sotto’s demagogical opposition had been expected, Enrile’s uncompromising stance had not been. And whereas defense of the bill in the House has been handled by a wide range of proponents, the task has been left in the Senate to two women, Senators Miriam Santiago and Pia Cayetano, the pro-RH men of the chamber apparently unwilling to stick their heads above the foxhole.

Delaying Tactics

In any event, a year and a half after it fought its way out of the committee, the RH bill is marooned in the parliamentary doldrums. The numbers continue to favor it in both the House and the Senate, though every session day that passes endangers that edge.

With the provisional vote count favoring the bill, the strategy of the opponents of the measure in the House has been to use repeated long interpellations or the threat of a quorum call to prevent the bill from coming to a vote or, failing that, to push the vote as close as possible to the 2013 elections in order to make pro-RH legislators waver in the face of the Church hierarchy’s threat to turn voters against them at the polls. Some say this strategy is effective, and the reason is that while the number of voters that might be influenced by the Church is not sizeable—perhaps coming to only 5 to 10 per cent of the electorate—it might nevertheless constitute the critical swing vote in close electoral contests.

Some RH proponents think this is just bluff, that there is no such thing as a “Catholic vote” like the “Iglesia ni Cristo vote.” But bluff or not, the threat is perceived as real by many members of Congress.

Church Opposition

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has waged a massive campaign against the bill. This has included threats to block the election of members of Congress voting for the bill, the mobilization of parish priests to inveigh against the bill in their weekend sermons, and the spread of disinformation about RH.

The main thrust of the Church’s propaganda has been to paint contraception as a vital step on the slippery slope towards abortion, indeed to make contraception indistinguishable from abortion. With no supporting evidence at all, contraceptive pills have been rhetorically denounced as “abortifacients.”

Another debating strategy is to deny that a high fertility rate and a high population growth rate in a low-growth economy like the Philippines constitute obstacles to development.

The fast and loose use of statistics marks the arguments of anti-RH advocates, along with really outrageous claims, like the assertion that condom use in Thailand has caused the spread of AIDs. Or that the RH bill is part of a US plot “to keep down the population of developing countries”—the so-called “Kissinger Doctrine.” Or that it is all part of a conspiracy of the big foreign pharmaceutical companies to expand the local market for artificial contraceptives.

When it is pointed out that most other religions and religious denominations in the country either favor or do not oppose the bill, the argument is simply brushed aside with the claim that 80 per cent of the population owes fealty to Rome.

Public Information Campaign

That these arguments have not cut any ice in both chambers is due to the fact that the pro-RH forces have done a good job of shooting them down and mustering strong arguments in support of the bill. Particularly effective in the floor debates have been the following arguments:

– The RH bill is built on the basic democratic principle of freedom of choice;

– Access to family planning is essential to maternal and child health;

– Survey after survey has shown a significant majority of respondents favoring family planning, including artificial contraception;

– Poor respondents, by a large majority, favor access to government-provided or facilitated family planning methods, including condoms, pills, and other methods of contraception;

– The 450,000 abortions that take place yearly can be significantly cut down by access to contraceptives;

– Income level is negatively correlated with family size, meaning the bigger the family, the poorer it is;

– Effective family planning is a central element in any strategy to promote development and reduce poverty.

This legislator’s contribution to the debate consisted of a four-part series of articles published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading daily newspaper, showing the strong correlation between family planning and successful development efforts in Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, and the correlation between uncontrolled population growth and failed development in the Philippines.

Based on field research in the four countries, I argued:

“What accounts for the difference in the performance of the four economies?

“Economic policy? Hardly, since all four countries followed export-oriented economic strategies over the last four decades.

“Structural adjustment? Not really, since all four economies were subjected to some variety of market-oriented reform, though it is arguable that adjustment was milder in our neighbors than in our country.

“Asset and income redistribution? No, since as in the Philippines, state-promoted asset and income redistribution programs in Thailand and Indonesia were either weak or nonexistent.

“Corruption? Again, all four countries have been marked by high levels of corruption, with Indonesia being a consistent topnotcher in annual surveys.

“There is, in fact, one very distinctive feature that separates the Philippines from its neighbors: unlike our country, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand managed to rein in the growth of their populations through effective state-sponsored family planning programs. And while successful family planning is not the whole story, economists and demographers have a consensus that it is an essential element in the narrative of economic advance in our neighboring countries.”

Unexpected Development

Exasperated with the anti-RH forces’ delaying tactics, the pro-RH forces have recently intensified their effort to the Speaker for a vote before the sine die adjournment of the second session in early June. Unfortunately, something completely unexpected occurred that contributed to rolling back the pro-RH timetable. This was the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which is reaching its climax. Since the RH bill and the trial of the Chief Justice (a move pushed by the House of Representatives and supported by the President) are the two most controversial issues in the country, the final resolution of both coming at almost the same time has apparently worried some quarters of the ruling establishment as overloading the political system.

In the view of some RH proponents, however, this danger is overstated and simply serves as an excuse for the House and Senate leaderships to postpone a contentious but necessary reckoning before the adjournment of the second session of the 15th Congress.

Higher Stakes?

As the second session draws to a close, my sense is that while the RH congressional advocates and civil society supporters have done a superb job in pushing the issue, in terms of legislative strategy, public information, and mass mobilizations, they have come up against determined and fanatical opposition from the Church hierarchy, which has made stopping the bill a top priority.

Why is the Church so uncompromising? Perhaps revealing in this regard was a recent remark by former Novaliches Bishop Teodoro Bacani, one of the most aggressive opponents of the bill: “One…argument submitted by the proponents of the RH bill is the fact that other countries with a Catholic majority have already accepted what is being proposed by the present RH bill. The answer to that is a simple: ‘If they have gone the wrong way, why should we follow them?’ The Popes have been lamenting this slide of many Catholic countries to secularism. We should be proud that we have bucked the trend to a great extent.”

In other words, the battle over RH, from the point of view of the Church hierarchy, is not just about RH. It is about a historic, nay cosmic, struggle to maintain the Church’s ideological hold on the minds of Filipinos. It is a last ditch stand against that great foe, the secular Enlightenment, which has triumphed in most other countries with a Christian religious heritage. Three key hard-won principles of the Enlightenment are present in the RH bill: the freedom of choice, the use of reason and science to ameliorate people’s lives, and the separation of Church and state.

The Catholic Church hierarchy is desperately seeking to remain relevant to Filipinos, but it has chosen the wrong battle to fight, for most Filipinos have already left it behind when it comes to reproductive health, and the bishops and their congressional allies are now a small embattled minority. As in many other countries, most people in this country—myself included–remain broadly respectful of the Church, but they want it out of the bedroom and are dismayed at its attempt at totalitarian doctrinal control. As in many other countries, “bucking the trend,” as Msgr. Bacani puts it, will result not in transformative redemption but in painful isolation. Whether in Ireland, Germany, Southern Europe, or the United States, the hierarchy’s wrongheaded stand on contraception combined with the awful revelations of numerous cases of sexual abuse of children and sexual abuse and harassment of women by priests that Rome and Church hierarchies have tolerated all over the Catholic world has been the perfect formula for the descent into disrepute and irrelevance.

Our problem, though, is that the Church hierarchy’s suicidal stand against reason threatens to bring down the country along with it in Gotterdamerung style. It has been almost 14 years since the reproductive health bill was first introduced in Congress. Since it then, the population of the country has grown from 75 million to over 94 million. The scorched-earth rearguard action of the Catholic Church hierarchy against rationality and collective responsibility has unfortunately condemned millions of those children who joined our country in the last 14 years to grinding poverty and a precarious existence.

Despite setbacks in schedule, I am confident that, whatever their personal stance on the issue, the leaders of the House and Senate will be able to gather the courage to bring the RH Bill to a vote sooner rather than later. There is no doubt that when the RH Bill does come to a vote, it will be a transcendental event in our country’s painful progress away from ignorance and blind tradition that began with the movement for secular reform promoted by the ilustrados, the Reform Movement, and the Revolutionary Movement in the late 19th century but which remains incomplete. The challenge to members of Congress will be to abandon narrow electoral self-interest and vote on the following choice: an irrational obscurantist stance that would keep the country in prolonged darkness and poverty, or a future marked by vigorous development, prosperity, and a democratic politics that is truly free of clerical interference, marked by a genuine separation of Church and State, and enjoying real religious tolerance.

*Rep. Walden Bello, who represents Akbayan Party in the House of Representatives, is one of the main sponsors of the Reproductive Health Bill.

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