Editorial

Contentious battleground

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The passage of the controversial Reproductive Health Law was an epic struggle; wouldn’t it be tragic if, for lack of the necessary funds, or because of complacency among its varied coalition of supporters, the landmark legislative victory turned out to be merely Pyrrhic?

One of the main architects of that victory, Rep. Edcel Lagman, sounded the alarm only weeks after the measure became law. “Funding will always be a contentious battleground in the implementation of the RH Law. Without adequate appropriation, the RH Law will be reduced to a fossilized policy, a Jurassic shibboleth,” the bill’s primary sponsor in the House of Representatives said at a gathering in his honor organized last week by the Forum for Family Planning and Development.

We cannot pretend to know exactly what Lagman meant when he yoked together two concepts millions of years apart, but we get the gist. A “Jurassic shibboleth” of a law would be a legislative dinosaur, imposing in bulk but unable to move, for lack of the right amount of sustenance.

Inadequate appropriation for the RH Law: Is Lagman being merely melodramatic? The 2013 budget of the Department of Health contains a considerable amount of money that can be used to fund the purposes and programs of the RH Law. Section 25 of the law states the first and main source of appropriations: “The amounts appropriated in the current annual General Appropriations Act (GAA) for reproductive health and natural and artificial family planning and responsible parenthood under the DOH and other concerned agencies shall be allocated and utilized for the implementation of this Act.” The approved DOH budget includes, among others, an item for “family health and responsible parenting,” in the amount of P2.5 billion.

But that amount is provided for in the 2013 budget, passed by the same Congress that passed the RH Law. What about succeeding budgets? They will be where the next battle in the reproductive health war will be fought.

“It is our common concern to have pro-RH legislators elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate to assure a continuing and requisite appropriation for the RH Law,” Lagman said. “The threat of rejection at the polls must be obliterated by a positive campaign for electoral mandates for kindred and qualified candidates.”

In other words, the elections in May will help define the fate of the controversial but much-needed law.

It is a fate that remains very much in-the-making. The opposition to the law remains fierce, especially among those legislators and those local government officials who support the anti-RH stance of the Catholic Church.

There are the legal challenges, too; at least three have been filed with the Supreme Court. But we find it hard to imagine the much-debated measure being struck down for “grave abuse of discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction”—the only means provided by the 1987 Constitution for the high court to override the so-called political question doctrine, which gives the executive and legislative branches of government wide latitude to define policy. How could it be abuse of discretion, when it was the subject of interminable debate, heated discussion and hard-fought compromise in the halls of Congress?

So Lagman is quite right to focus on the funding, and on the circumstance on which it will depend: the election of enough RH Law supporters to approve adequate funds for the law in succeeding budgets.

The greatest danger to the new law is complacency, the tedium of the happy winner. Celebratory parties, laudatory print articles and TV profiles, congratulatory forums: They can all act as a natural narcotic, lulling the hard-scrabble coalition to a false sense of permanent victory.

That same coalition, both the networks of civil society groups and nongovernment organizations which came together and helped push for passage and the patchwork alliances among congressmen and senators which ended up voting for the law, must continue to work together. It must turn its attention, and its resources, to the coming battle: Ensure the return of enough pro-RH lawmakers, to fully fund the RH Law.

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