How serious is former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s medical condition? What are its major indicators? What is the typical outlook for cases like hers? These questions are best answered by medical specialists. Though the answers may not be crucial to the legal issues submitted to the Supreme Court for resolution, they are relevant to the political questions now confronting P-Noy and his Cabinet.
The political issue is: What is the right balance between the government’s quest to make Arroyo legally accountable for her past actions, and her constitutional rights and medical needs as a citizen? If the P-Noy administration miscalculates in its handling of this issue, there will be costs to pay, both legal and political. The ultimate political cost would be impeachment. But the costs may also come in the form of diminished credibility and public trust.
The political gains, however, are no less important. P-Noy was elected president on the promise that his government will be resolute in making all the big crooks who abused their powers and privileges pay for their crimes. If he succeeds in putting Arroyo on trial in a fair and transparent way, it will be a big step in the program to root out corruption in our society. If Mr. Aquino fails in this effort, his campaign to put government on a straight path will be derailed even before it has taken off. The stakes are high; the President cannot be unmindful of the risks he has taken.
The legal and constitutional issues are complex enough. The key question appears to be: Whether Department of Justice Circular No. 41, issued by then acting Justice Secretary Alberto C. Agra in the last remaining weeks of the Arroyo administration, violates the right to travel enshrined in the Constitution. The circular bears the title: “Consolidated rules and regulations governing the issuances and implementing of Hold Departure Orders, Watchlist Orders, and Allow Departure Orders.” Among other things, it gives to the secretary of justice the power to issue HDOs and WLOs against persons involved in pending criminal cases even when they are still under preliminary investigation. Prior to this, only judges were empowered to issue HDOs. By putting out this circular, the DOJ—during Arroyo’s presidency—claimed the right to stop the departure of individuals in order to “prevent any miscarriage of justice, without, however, sacrificing the individual’s right to travel.”
Many Filipinos and foreigners have been prevented from leaving the country on the strength of this circular. No one questioned its constitutionality—until now. It is no small irony that the one who is questioning it is none other than the former president herself during whose term it was conceived and enforced. If this does not speak volumes about the privileged class’ attitude toward the law, we don’t know what does.
Is the DOJ circular a constitutional abridgment of the right to travel? This is yet to be resolved, but in issuing a TRO allowing Arroyo to leave, the SC majority signals where it is likely to go. The question will not make it necessary to inquire into Arroyo’s medical condition. The purpose of Arroyo’s travel makes no difference from the legal standpoint.
But the question of her actual medical status is of paramount importance to political outcomes. Political interests are very much in contention here. Arroyo’s camp depicts her condition as extremely delicate, requiring the urgent attention of the best specialists one can find abroad. For barring her departure, the Aquino government is portrayed as heartless and tyrannical, thus putting into question its capacity to do justice to its citizens, especially to its political enemies. Once they leave and decide not to return to face the cases against them, the Arroyo couple can apply for political asylum in a friendly country on the ground of persecution and inhumane treatment by their own government.
That is why the question of GMA’s real medical condition is vital. The pictures released by her camp showing her wearing an elaborate contraption to prevent the compression and dislocation of her spinal column suggest an extremely fragile state that could be aggravated by the slightest movement or touch. But, if that is the case, why is her family taking the great risk of transporting her to another country? If there are really, as claimed, no comparable specialists in the Philippines who could diagnose and treat her condition, would it not be better, at least for now, to bring in the foreign doctors than to fly her halfway across the globe? Is she really in a bad shape, or is she just lying again?
Indeed, it is none of our business where they want to seek treatment. But the Arroyos must be told that they cannot draw public sympathy or make political capital out of anybody’s health condition without somebody asking how serious she really is. Outside of her doctors at St. Luke’s Hospital, hardly any Filipino doctor or medical scientist has weighed in on the medical question. It is likely that professional ethical considerations are deterring them. But it is important that they be asked and heard.
The questions in the public mind are pretty simple. Apart from the legal and political problems facing her, what major medical problems are bugging the former president? How serious might these be at this point, given what we’ve seen and heard in media? Aren’t there physicians and surgeons in our country who can competently diagnose and treat these problems?