Passion For Reason

Sober, rational and still Catholic about RH

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Given the heated arguments, maybe the title should end with a question mark. Is it possible to be sober, rational and truthful about reproductive health (RH), and still be a good Catholic? I, for one, certainly wouldn’t give up trying. My father was prefect of the Sodality in his student days at Ateneo (and member as well of the Legion of Mary), and he would expect nothing less from his eldest son who chose to study at a pagan school in Diliman peopled by godless communists.

We must confine the debate to what the philosopher John Rawls called “public reason.” Rawls doesn’t call on people to cast away their “comprehensive doctrines of truth or right”—like religion—but only that in political discourse in a public forum, they should advance those beliefs in terms that are accessible to everyone.

In relation to RH, we should exclude arguments based on a specific religion, such as those made by that congressman who proclaimed on the floor of Congress that when the 1987 Constitution says “We, the sovereign Filipino people, imploring the aid of Almighty God…,” it refers “only to the Catholic God.” So what does that make of the millions of Muslim Filipinos? Since they are part of the “sovereign Filipino people,” we make them invoke our God instead of theirs? Good heavens.

Given the religiously charged debate on reproductive health, public reason demands that we argue only on terms acceptable to people of all faiths. When Catholic anti-RH crusaders invoke the Bible, that works only with their fellow believers, but not to nonbelievers. How would Catholics feel if Muslims invoked Koranic verses against them?

Admittedly, on some questions—“When does life begin?”—we can’t avoid religion. Science says the moment of “implantation,” the Catholic Church, “fertilization.” So for this debate, let us focus on the one birth-control method that prevents fertilization altogether, namely, condoms. In other words, if the bishops still object even when there is no fertilized egg at all, then it means they’re not really being candid with us. The anti-RH debate is merely a smokescreen for a different agenda.

It is time to end the congressional debate on the RH bill. It has dragged on for too long. The first RH bills were filed in the 11th Congress (1998-2001) and the 12th (2001-04), and both times the bills died at the first committee level. By the 13th Congress (2004-07), four bills were filed in the Senate and one consolidated bill in the House of Representatives, of which only the House bill got as far as the second committee level. More recently, in the 14th Congress (2007-10), the Senate and the House each had their own RH bills, and both bills this time survived the two committee levels and got as far as the second reading, where they got marooned in procedural limbo. It is only now in the 15th Congress that the bills have advanced to plenary debate, and thus the come-hell-or-high-water desperation of the anti-RH lobby.

In those debates, it is my hope that we can avoid deliberate misinformation: one, that the RH bill legalizes abortion (it plainly does not); and two, that it prescribes “artificial” methods of contraception (indeed, it offers married couples the full range of options).

Two, we musn’t ignore the facts. Figures show that each year in the Philippines, 473,000 unintended pregnancies end in abortion, 79,000 women are hospitalized due to abortion-related complications, and 800 women die due to such complications because they are often refused treatment and humiliated in hospitals.

In the words of Junice Melgar, M.D., of Likhaan (whom Sen. Tito Sotto singled out by name on the Senate floor): “Effective family planning minimizes unplanned pregnancies—the starting point of most women’s decision to undergo an abortion. Humane post-abortion care reduces repeat abortions through counseling and immediate access to contraception. Sexuality education by trained schoolteachers cuts down teenagers’ risky sexual behaviors.”

Three, the anti-RH crusaders must stop portraying pro-RH activists as bad Catholics.

If politics makes strange bedfellows, some (not all) anti-RH politicians make the creepiest bedfellows for the Roman Catholic clergy. They include characters whose extramarital lives do not conform to Catholic teaching, whose vices cannot by any stretch of the imagination earn heavenly indulgences, or whose inane utterances affront the rationality and eloquence of the Church’s great thinkers.

In contrast, many of the pro-RH advocates have been drawn to the RH cause precisely because they have taken to heart the Church’s teaching on the “preferential option for the poor.” They value life. They recognize the simple fact that less unwanted pregnancies will also mean fewer abortions. Here I borrow a quote I saw on Facebook: “[N]o woman has ever ambitioned to have an abortion. But abortion remains a fact of life, and a fact of death, for many women.”

RH advocates know that to oppose contraceptives is knowingly to abet abortions. They recognize that the loftiest sermons about chastity are empty and hollow to nubile girls who live under the flyovers of Edsa, in one-room hovels where unrelated males and females sleep in common areas, without toilets or showers, or in wooden kariton where they are vulnerable 24/7 to sexual predators. They know that the best way to strengthen the Filipino family is to empower fathers and mothers to plan their families responsibly.

Social justice is in the Philippine Constitution but it is equally a part of Catholic teaching. Reproductive health has been debated as an issue of free choice—rightly so—but it is time we recognized it also as a duty of the state to ensure the equal right of all Filipinos, especially the poor, to take charge of their lives.

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