At Large

Take a bow

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The day after the passage on third and final reading in both the House and the Senate of the reproductive health bill, journalists grilling President Aquino at a media gathering had his “reproductive future” in mind.

How many children did he want, if and when he got married? asked Domini Torrevillas of the Philippine Star. “It might be a disincentive to my future wife,” replied P-Noy smoothly. “But I have always wanted the same number of children as the family I grew up with (there were five of them). But that is open to negotiation.”

Does he still dream of “someone to share your life with?” columnist Donnie Ramirez wanted to know. “Not for want of trying,” he said with a smile. In fact, the President recalled, his late mother had already set aside “long ago” material for his bride’s wedding gown. But so much time had passed, he said, and by this time “the material is no longer white.”

Playing a game of word association with P-Noy, Jullie Yap Daza of the Manila Bulletin asked him what came to mind with the word “population.” “Responsible” was the President’s reply. “Christmas?” “Family.” But, perhaps as an indication of his mindset, when fed the word “Malacañang,” his reply was telling: “leaving.”

When two of the “Bulong-Pulongan” women congratulated him for the passage of the RH bill, P-Noy demurred: “Alalay lang ako (I was just a supporter).” In another exchange, he said his role in all the debates was simply that of “tagasangga ng kamatis (blocker of rotten tomatoes)” thrown the bill’s supporters’ way.

But however much he tries to downplay the role he played in getting this tricky bit of legislation passed, P-Noy will go down in history as the bachelor President who accomplished what his predecessors could not or would not do: expending valuable political capital into bringing the Philippines in step with much of the world on women’s rights and children’s welfare.

* * *

TO BE sure, the law-in-the-making has plenty of champions, even more in fact than it had opponents and critics.

Earlier, I already paid tribute to “Cong Edcel” Lagman, the legislator from Albay and principal author of the RH bill in the House, who had labored, for well over a decade, to get this legislation passed. This he did through different administrations, as a prominent member of the majority, as well as first the leader of the minority, and then as an independent when he was ousted from the post of minority floor leader. What joy it must give him to retire from politics with this measure finally wrapped up, sealed and delivered to the Filipino people!

Throughout the bill’s painful and precarious route to passage, so many champions grew into their roles, rising to the challenge of dispelling the myths and facing down the intimidation of critics, especially of bishops and clerics.

Rep. Janette Garin was a neophyte congresswoman from Iloilo when she agreed to be a coauthor of the measure, and in the early years she deferred to Lagman during public appearances. But she stuck to her guns, and developed an expertise of her own based on her background as a medical practitioner. In this Congress, assuming the post of deputy speaker, she emerged as a power center of her own, deftly steering the bill through its many thorny passages. Rep. Kimi Cojuangco of Pangasinan was, I will admit, a revelation. She quickly mastered the data on population and health issues, and became quite an outspoken champion. So, too, were Representatives Kaka Bag-ao and Emeline Aglipay, and many other young legislators who bolstered the positions of the “pros.” And always a gracious presence in the galleries and in public appearances was former party-list representative Risa Hontiveros, who fought so hard in previous congresses to pass the RH bill, and cheered as the bill reached the final phase.

* * *

I REMEMBER conversing with Sen. Pia Cayetano early in her first term as a senator and feeling a bit disheartened when she admitted that she “didn’t like being confrontational.” But as chair of the committee on population and main defender of the counterpart bill in the Senate, she seemed to grow into her role. Listening to her during the final day of the “period of amendments,” I was cheering as I heard her deftly defend key passages under assault by Sen. Tito Sotto. She was firm where it mattered, and gracious in the face of his boorishness.

Senator Pia deftly played “tag team” with Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, who was the bill’s cosponsor. She would step in and stop “Tito Sen” in his tracks with her deep knowledge of international law, especially when Sotto tried to pit “Philippine culture” against the “decadent” Western one.

For much of the RH debates, in many congresses, Sen. Loren Legarda kept a low profile and rarely spoke up on it, once even admitting that she was “prolife.” But by the final stage of the debates, she seemed to have wrapped her head around the issue, stepping in with key interventions, citing statistics on violence against women as Sotto tried to delete the word and concept of “satisfying” sex from the bill.

Of course, the male senators likewise played crucial roles: Senators Ping Lacson who has been a long-time RH champion, Frank Drilon, Alan Peter Cayetano, even Ralph Recto who voted for the measure even if initially he had reservations (introducing a few iffy amendments in the process) about the bill.

And let’s not forget the “pioneers,” people like former senator Leticia Ramos Shahani, whose simple proposal in the 1980s for Congress to “study” the issue of population led to this decades-old struggle, and former senator and now Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, who was once a lonely voice for RH in the Senate.

Everyone, take a bow!

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