The historic RH vote: How a democracy manages conflict over values
When the presiding officer, Rep. Lorenzo Tanada III, arrived at my name and asked for my vote during the historic House of Representatives’ vote on the Reproductive Health Bill last Wednesday night, December 12, I replied in the affirmative and walked towards the rostrum to explain my vote.
He then posed the standard question, “What is the pleasure of the gentleman from Akbayan?” To which I replied, “I hesitate to answer that question since ‘pleasure’ has become a controversial word during the last few days’ debate.”
It was my attempt to inject some humor into a proceeding that had become like a tense basketball game, where one team maintained a slight edge but could not quite pull away owing to the tenacity of the other side. Some of the other statements that evening drew more laughter than my intervention, probably because they were inadvertently funny, as when Rep. Thelma Almario of Surigao del Sur expressed her sanguine wish that “in my lifetime we will have enough Filipinos so we can ‘Filipinize’ the whole world.”
Or when Congressman Dong Gonzalez of Pampanga hoped his parents would know he had fulfilled their dying wish that he vote against the RH Bill “in case they’re now flitting around in this hall.”
Conflict of Values
Apart from such moments of light humor, the situation was deadly serious, and much of the country stayed glued to the voting via television or the internet. To many on both sides of the RH debate, the outcome of the vote would either be a national triumph or national tragedy. Unlike other major legislative encounters in the last few years, the RH debate was not over national security. Neither was it about clashing economic interests, nor about different political visions about the future of the country. It was about a clash of values or beliefs on key social relationships: the relationship of the state to the family, the relationship of the church to the state, and the responsibility of the State towards its citizens.
Many of the anti-RH legislators rose that historic evening to express the deep beliefs that informed their scorched earth efforts to block the bill till the very end. Rep. Rufus Rodriguez of Cagayan de Oro and Rep. Pablo Garcia of Cebu claimed it was anti-constitutional because in their view, it was against life, the right to which is protected by the constitution. Rep. Amado Bagatsing said that between a church that was over 2000 years old and a state that was just a few decades old, he was taking side of his church. Earlier in the RH debate, Bagatsing earned the distinction of claiming that “contraception is abortion.”
Yet the debate showed that conservatism on the use of contraceptives has its roots not only in religious conviction, but in personal circumstances. Not a few members recounted how they were part of poor large families—in the case of Congressman Dong Gonzalez, 12 siblings—where parents and children pulled themselves up by the bootstraps. Their message was if they could do it through hard work, why couldn’t other poor families, why should the state promote smaller families via the provision of contraceptives?
On the pro-RH side, the articulation of fundamental values was equally impassioned. These were the values mainly of the liberal tradition. For Rep. Edcel Lagman, whose 14-year-long leadership in promoting the bill will be remembered as a legislative epic, the key principle was the state’s right to “benignly intervene” in the reproductive area, as in other dimensions of individual and social life, to promote the collective interest. This intervention was being done in the service of free choice. Providing access to contraceptives to the poor was the liberal state’s way of assuring that couples could in fact exercise free and informed choice in deciding the size of their families and the spacing of their children.
Rep. Emmeline Aglipay of party Diwa spoke for many on the pro-RH side when she said she was casting her vote “for reason and against ignorance.” For Rep. Linbelle Ruth Villarica of Bulacan, the bill was a necessary sep forward in the struggle for women’s rights and women’s welfare. Rep. Angelo Palmones said that by the time the legislators finished voting for the measure, another 14 women would have died owing to the maternal health complications addressed by the bill. Several said that the bill was not only pro-life, but “pro-quality of life” owing to its presumed effect on reducing poverty.
It was left up to two Mindanao legislators to bravely bring up the issue of population management, which the anti-RH side had made into a bogeyman, with their shrill warnings against “population control.” Rep. Tupay Loong of
Sulu asserted that uncontrolled population growth had become a hindrance to national development and necessitated action on the part of the state. In the view of Rep. Joey Zubiri of Bukidnon, the last congressman to speak, the RH bill was necessary because “population growth has become the number one national security problem” that had to be addressed by the state.
Democracy and Value Clashes
Coming out of Wednesday’s night debate, which saw the bill win by a vote of 113 to 104, with three abstentions, I can only be grateful that we have a democratic process whose rules are internalized by most Filipinos, particularly the principle that the majority rules. Conficts over basic values often turn into bloody wars. Take the wars of the reformation in 17th century Europe or the current fundamentalist-instigated conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the rules of representative democracy have not taken hold. We may have fundamentalists on the anti-RH side, but thank god, they believe in the rules of democracy.
Hopefully, the third reading of the RH bill will proceed smoothly in the House and the Senate will approve its version next week, so we can a bill that can be reconciled and ratified early in January and ready for the president’s signature.
I will look back with pride to the 15th Congress that passed the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Bill. Indeed, even if no other bill I am associated were to be passed in this Congress, the victory of this long overdue measure, which will enable our country to have greater capacity to confront the challenges of the 21st century, will be enough to bring me immense satisfaction.
It was probably this sense of history-in-the-making and his wish to be part of it that made one of my colleagues, notorious for his absenteeism, to emerge out of the woodwork to vote for the bill. Hopefully, he won’t vanish again.
INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello represents the party Akbayan in the House of Representatives.