The members of the parliamentary opposition to reproductive health must face the music. They owe their power to the democratic process. They mustn’t disdain the democratic verdict. If only to show respect for the source of their power and all the perks they now enjoy, they must stop delaying the vote. It isn’t kosher to enjoy democracy’s bounties while shrugging off its burdens. President Aquino said it more diplomatically when he convened the pro-RH congressmen in Malacañang: “Leadership comes not just with perks but also with responsibilities, and among those responsibilities is that of making a choice.”
But there is a deeper reason they must end their filibuster and all the parliamentary tricks to prolong the 13-year wait for an RH law. The bill entails fundamental debate on the values we hold most dearly as a people. It cheapens their cause for them to win through technicality and parliamentary sleight of hand.
The anti-RH forces invoke respect for their religious beliefs and parents’ authority over their children. The pro-RH forces invoke the idea of a secular state, the privacy of the marital bedroom, state solicitude for maternal health, and social justice for the poor. Yet the only way for the anti-RH legislators to elevate filibustering to virtue is to say that their desired result—a congressional stalemate—is God’s gift to his anti-RH legions, but that only demeans their cause into superstition.
Worse, it also shows them to be dogmatic and unreasonable if they maintain their hard-line stance despite major concessions already made by the pro-RH camp. In the compromise RH bill, religious hospitals will be exempted from the obligation to offer modern family planning care.
The compromise expands the grounds for “conscientious objections” and allows doctors and nurses to refuse to render medical services they deem inconsistent with their faith. Moreover, the compromise gives parents an opt-out clause if they don’t want their kids to undergo compulsory RH education in schools.
There is even a clause that embraces the Catholic definition of when life begins: The compromise will promote only those “health care services [that] do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum.” Finally, the compromise will even limit the scope of the poor and marginalized qualifying for subsidized care.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III argues that we don’t need an RH bill because we already have enough laws and programs for maternal health and population control. “In other words,” Sotto said, “the problem here isn’t the absence of laws but the need for correct and effective implementation of the laws that we [already] have.” The argument fails at several levels.
One, if all those wonderful laws have failed to prevent the unnecessary deaths of Filipino mothers, why now resist a law that addresses directly the problem of maternal mortality? Dr. Marilen J. Danguilan, in a talk before public health advocates, cited our “scandalously slow” progress in curbing maternal mortality. “Put another way, from 1990 to 2010, about 50,349 to 86,221 women have already died. If we have to be dramatic about these figures, that’s about 287 jet crashes, without any survivors.”
Two, the argument is disingenuous. If we abandoned the RH law and relied on the existing laws that Senator Sotto cites, does he assure us that those laws will in fact be carried out to benefit the reproductive health of poor Filipinos? Indeed, does he even assure us that his own cohorts wouldn’t sabotage those laws?
Third, and if somehow Senator Sotto would indeed advance RH through other laws, why would he oppose advancing RH through the RH law? What is so bad about achieving through an RH law the same results that he says can be achieved under other laws? The only explanation is that what he objects to is not the practical result, namely, promoting RH, but affirming a principle, namely, that men and women have a right to enjoy reproductive health.
On this point, Senator Sotto has a point. He can compromise on the fine print but he will hold the line on first principles. Precisely for that reason, the pro-RH groups must reciprocate in kind. They, too, must not lose sight of the foundational norms that have animated the RH struggle from its inception, namely, the right of every human being to make the most intimate choices by which to live his or her life. That principle tends to be overshadowed by the population control arguments. At this stage of the debate, we must shift to the rights-based argument in order to clinch the RH law.
2 distinct strands
The RH debate in the Philippines consists of two distinct strands—population control and human rights. The first approach sees RH as an economic issue: Any progress we make in economic development will just be eaten up by the growth in our population. That makes eminent sense, I agree. But it also opens up the debate to old arguments that will never die. There’s the distributional argument: “It’s not the size of the pie but how it’s distributed.” There’s the anti-corruption spiel: “If only we can reduce corruption ….” There’s the old economist’s wisdom: “Don’t look at that one mouth to feed, but see the two hands that work.” The problem with these arguments is that they provoke only more debate. The “two hands that work” thesis, for instance, assumes that there are well-paying jobs waiting to employ those hands, and before long you will find yourself mired in debates about which economic system is best.
The second approach sees RH as each person’s right to make informed choices that shape his or her own life. Unlike the first, it doesn’t take a “macro” view of the problem of poverty. Rather, it starts on that assumption: There are many who are poor in our nation. The population control approach looks for economic strategies to overcome poverty and its effects. In contrast, the rights-based approach says that while we grapple with those big questions, poor fathers and mothers should be able to plan their families, and decide how many children they want and how far apart to space them.
The advantage of the rights-based approach is that it is based on one document that each and every congressman and senator has taken the oath to respect, the Philippine Constitution. That document recognizes the “right of spouses to found a family in accordance with their religious convictions and the demands of responsible parenthood.” It also provides for “social justice,” including the government’s duty to make health services “available at affordable cost” especially for women and children. It also states that the “separation of church and state shall be inviolable.”
The rights-based approach is more in step with the times because it empowers each individual to decide for himself or herself. There are millions of hardworking Filipino parents struggling to raise a family. They may be powerless to shape the nation’s economy, but we must empower them with the first and most basic impulse to take charge of their lives.