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09:24 PM September 15th, 2011

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By: Raul C. Pangalangan, September 15th, 2011 09:24 PM

Yesterday Senators Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Pia Cayetano returned to lecture at their intellectual home, Malcolm Hall at the UP College of Law, and addressed a standing-room-only crowd of students from numerous colleges of UP and other universities in Manila, and various NGO activists.

The forum was on “Reproductive Rights as Human Rights” and was organized by UP’s Institute of Human Rights to celebrate the centennial of the law school. I was one of the reactors, together with Dr. Esperanza Cabral, former health secretary.

With quintessential Miriam flourish, one of the promotional posters quoted her saying: “I can’t imagine going to the bedroom with my husband and saying, ‘Let us procreate’.”

To quote Miriam further, the forum demonstrated “the power of an idea whose time has come.” Senators Santiago and Cayetano showed the importance of putting the emotionally charged RH debate on sober and rational footing.

Senator Cayetano stressed: No, the RH bill does not legalize abortion. No, the RH bill does not impose any specific family planning method. No, the RH bill does not involve any coercion. On the contrary, it respects the liberty of husbands and wives to choose how to space their children and manage their family size according to their budget, the quality of life they wish to offer their children, their consciences and their religious beliefs. And, she noted, it is important to educate adolescents about reproductive health to halt the spiral of teenage pregnancies and sexual abuse.

Senator Santiago, my own professor in Constitutional Law when she was still a young lawyer working in the Department of Justice under former law dean Vicente Abad Santos, structured her lecture around the two foundations of the Bill of Rights, namely, liberty and equality.

The liberty of couples to manage the size of their families is anchored upon two kinds of privacy. The first is their “decisional” privacy to make certain choices, the “primacy of conscience” in the words of Senator Santiago, e.g, what they do when they “do,” without the government poking its nose into the kulambô. The second is their “spatial” privacy that commands the government to respect the sanctity of the marital bedroom.

The most dramatic example of this violation is the unlamented Ayala Alabang ordinance that required a doctor’s prescription for the purchase of contraceptives, and for pharmacists to record the names of contraceptive users in a “register book for abortives and anti-conceptionals.”

She also emphasized that reproductive rights must be discussed with secular arguments that are neutral to religion. Indeed, Senator Santiago even quoted Pope Benedict XVI for support: “Above the Pope stands one’s own conscience.”

Finally, another liberty aspect that Senator Santiago mentioned in her sponsorship speech was that access to information is indispensable to knowing and informed choice. In other words, for couples to make intelligent choices, they need to know what choices are available and what are the consequences of each choice.

At Malcolm Hall, the inimitable Senator Santiago so comfortably donned her hat as law professor. It must have been the scholar in her that prodded her to develop new themes in the RH debate. She contrasted the “vertical” and “horizontal” enforcement of human rights. “Vertical,” or protecting rights against violations by states. “Horizontal,” or protecting rights against violations by private persons, for instance, when women are left to fend for themselves against cultural biases, or when the poor are left to fend for themselves in the open market.

This concept is important because denial of access to RH is inherently discriminatory. It discriminates against women, who bear a disparate burden of the human cost of unwanted pregnancies, namely, hospitalization and possible death. Senator Santiago noted that 11 mothers die every day due to pregnancy—and childbirth-related complications. Sadly, this aspect is often silenced in the din of high-profile religious arguments. Sadder still, it shows a deeper disregard for women who are marginalized. Only women get pregnant, and yet as the two women senators reminded us, a bill on reproductive rights can be debated as if women were mere bystanders.

Denial of access to RH is also anti-poor. The claim for RH is a claim for social justice. To say that the rich and poor have equal access to RH is like saying of the poor, “Let them eat cake.” The couples who most desperately need RH support are those so desperate they can barely afford to secure three square meals a day for their children. To tell them to use their cash to buy condoms is both unrealistic, callous and heartless. To tell them that the only way to manage their family size is for them to refrain from having sex until they can afford to buy condoms is to ignore our basic human needs.

The RH debate in our country has thus far fixated on the liberty argument and glossed over the equality argument. Strategically, we must shift the argument toward equality and social justice, and demonstrate that anti-RH is not only anti-choice but also anti-women and anti-poor. To confine ourselves to liberty arguments is to remain in an arena where religion can plausibly insinuate itself. Whereas, by arguing social justice, we actually beckon the Catholic clergy to join hands in carrying out a “preferential option for the poor” that they themselves profess.

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