When the 109th vote came, courtesy of Bukidnon Rep. Jose Zubiri III, those following the nominal voting on social media began to see a slow explosion, a virtual blossoming, of celebratory tweets and congratulatory posts. (A government official with a reputation for wit was moved to define a new word: “Zumubiri—verb [I think], to cast the crucial vote at the most critical time.”)

That was it; the 50-percent mark of the day’s quorum had been breached and—as advocates and observers alike began to realize, even while the second call (of votes) was being conducted—history had been made.

For the first time in a decade and a half of strenuous attempts, the House of Representatives passed a reproductive health bill on second reading. Since the heart of HB 4244 is greater provision for the health of pregnant women, advocates may be forgiven for coining their own new word: “Herstory,” they said, was on the move.

“Every woman needs access to basic health services, [and] information on reproductive health,” said Aambis-OWA Party-list Rep. Sharon Garin, and the vote early Thursday morning moved the country closer to that simple ideal.

To be sure, the historic milestone comes burdened with limits. The RH bill isn’t a law yet, and major hurdles still lie in wait; congressmen opposed to the bill vowed to turn the third reading—by tradition a mere formality—into a new battleground of the RH wars. Its counterpart Senate bill is scheduled for second reading next week, in a vote that is too close to call. And some recalcitrant Catholic bishops have already identified other battlegrounds, including the bicameral conference committee, the Supreme Court and “the level of individual conscience.”

But the vote, completed at a little past two in the morning on Dec. 13, is a breakthrough nevertheless; it is a major step in the right direction that should be celebrated, and the 113 legislators who voted for it and, yes, the 104 who voted against it should be congratulated. (Unlike the increasingly crotchety retired prelate Oscar Cruz, who thinks only the representatives who voted No “still have a good conscience and conviction,” we think that the House action was by and large that unique thing—a true conscience vote. That, surely, is why the vote was close.)

Waxing optimistic, Health Secretary Enrique Ona called for national unity after the divisive vote, arguing that “in the long run, the Church can be our ally in ensuring that the real intent of the RH bill, which is the improvement of quality of life for every Filipino,” is met. On that we have no doubt—as long as Ona does not mistake the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for the Church itself.

Perhaps the complexion of the vote would have changed if more bishops had followed the non-triumphalistic tack of the new cardinal. Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle rued the passage on second reading as “unfortunate and tragic,” but he did not try to score cheap political points or threaten fire and brimstone. He simply defined what he thought the whole struggle was about: “We do not take it as a defeat of truth—for truth shall prevail, especially the truth about human life, marriage and the family.”

This was a far cry from that so-called expert commenting, as a guest on Church-run Radio Veritas on Tuesday night, that all those surveys showing a majority of Filipinos supported some form of reproductive health measure were “fake,” and that the unfolding House vote was nothing but pork barrel politics, practiced cynically by President Aquino and his Liberal Party allies. If that were so, why did some two dozen LP congressmen vote against the bill?

HB 4244’s principal sponsor, Rep. Edcel Lagman, tried his own hand at defining the true issues at stake in both the vote and the controversy: The bill, he said in his 3-minute explanation of his vote, was about “human rights, maternal and infant health and sustainable development.”

We agree, and urge the senators about to vote on their version to view the law-to-be in the same way. It is difficult to think of a better summing up, unless it was something else that Lagman said. “Let us have children by choice, not by chance,” he had said in conclusion.

Isn’t that, phrased in active form, the very truth about human life, marriage and the family?

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Tags: editorial , House of Representatives , Reproductive Health Bill , second reading

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