The pastoral and the liberal: Reflections on the RH bill


I spent over 11 hours at the House of Representatives with my friend Lila to watch lawmakers deliberate and finally vote on the reproductive health bill on second reading. The RH debate has been unusual in that it suggests how familial, regional and class interests are at times trumped by what Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello calls “values.” Anti-RH lawmakers announced their opposition to the bill, for example, as a matter of conscience or faith. They painted paranoid visions of contraception as leading to corruption and abortion. Reproductive health as population control assures nothing less than a coming Filipino holocaust. This sort of hyperbolic and extremist discourse coming from leaders of the anti-RH camp has led to the demonization of pro-RH supporters.

The other side is no less ideological, of course. Proponents frame the RH bill as an antipoverty measure designed to free the poor and everyone else from their given conditions, allowing them to expand their life options. Reducing population pressure, the bill would allow for a reduction in unemployment, along with a more educated work force. It would also free women to join the labor force and, just as important, allow them to advance in greater numbers once they are able to have better control over their bodies.

In other words, the economic rationale underlying the RH bill is also an argument about women’s rights as being integral to human rights. Clearly indebted to late-18th-century Euro-American revolutionary ideas about the pursuit of individual liberties, happiness, and property under the rule of law, it is this liberal stance about the state’s power to redefine life—more specifically, what constitutes a “good life”—that characterizes the ideology of pro-RH partisans.

Indeed, it is around these twin notions of law and life that stark differences between the RH bill’s opponents and proponents can be drawn. On one side, a view of life as God-given, beginning at conception, so that any artificial, non-Divine intervention would amount to the gravest violation of God’s law and spell moral calamity and social disaster. On the other, the right—if not duty—of every rational individual to think for him/herself, challenge authority, assert his/her innate rights, which include the right to a happy (and not merely tolerable) life, and therefore the embrace of science and technology, of the artificial itself, in the pursuit of these ends.

On one side, the notion of power as ineluctably pastoral, in which the priest is seen as the pastor acting in the name of Divine authority to ensure the otherworldly salvation of everyone, and therefore of each and every sheep both inside and outside the flock. From this perspective, the human takes its humanity from an Other, which is at the same time its radical negation, as embodied in the paradoxical God-Man figure of Jesus Christ. The authority of the pastor-priest, therefore, is directed toward its own abrogation at the end of the world, which will bring about justice, always understood as Divine retribution. Yet that end is constantly deferred, making the pastor continuously dependent on the very material world that he seeks to transcend.

On the other side, a notion of power as the ever-expanding capacity vested in ever-evolving state institutions to govern the lives of citizens. It is a notion of power that sees freedom in essentially worldly terms, as the condition that is best secured by having sufficient access to material and cultural goods. Here, state power comes not only from monopolizing the use of violence but also from superseding all other powers in its ability not to restrict life but to make it productive. The state in its idealized form is thus supposed to enable life itself to emerge in conditions where each living person can pursue his/her own ends within the limits of mutually agreed upon laws. But doing so also means that the state places itself in a position of intervening in the lives of its citizens on the most fundamental levels of existence. Government then becomes a matter of conducting the conduct of its citizens.

It is this ability to exercise “bio-power” (the power to form and reform modes of living) that gives to modern states their modernity. In this context, human life is not a matter of Divine dispensation that is bound to end in apocalyptic judgement. Rather, the state regards life as productive of, and thus subject to, ongoing interventions, reforms, transformations: in other words, life as so many sites of “empowerment.” Such a process, in turn, requires a set of interlocking disciplinary regimes located in such institutions as schools, hospitals and prisons designed to shape individual conduct on the most minute levels of living. Hence, human freedom ironically comes through disciplinary practices. We can think of RH not simply as a way of giving more choices but also as productive of new modes of behavior keyed to the disciplinary imperatives of the capitalist marketplace. By empowering women and increasing their choices, the state also sets new terms for governing individual conduct and managing life, now conceived in aggregate terms as the “population.”

What the RH debate has shown is the clash between two kinds of power—the pastoral and the liberal—two styles of governing based on two different notions of life, and two different assumptions about law and citizenship. It’s not the first time this has happened in the Philippines—the emergence of nationalism in the late 19th century is an early instance (where liberalism was victorious); Edsa I is another (where pastoralism arguably won out)—and it certainly won’t be the last.

Dr. Vicente Rafael is professor of history at the University of Washington in Seattle. He has written works on the political and cultural history of the Philippines, such as “Contracting Colonialism,” “Promise of the Foreign” and “White Love.”

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