The order of the Supreme Court suspending the implementation of the controversial law on reproductive health was a real surprise, and not in a good way. Petition after petition against the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 was filed as soon as President Aquino signed it into law last December, but the high court declined to issue a restraining order. Less than two weeks before the law was to finally take effect, however, the tribunal suddenly decided to put it on hold.
There is no question that the Supreme Court acted within the scope of its responsibilities when it issued the status quo ante order. And yet we are flabbergasted just the same. The law was heavily debated in the political branches of government for over a decade; the intensity of the controversy in the last two years is a good gauge of how much discussion had been generated, how many compromises had been reached, how much political capital had been spent, in both the halls of Congress and the corridors of Malacañang. The Supreme Court should have used a higher standard, required a greater showing of rank unconstitutionality or alleged abuse of discretion on the part of either Congress or the Palace, before giving the petitions due course.
This was no stealth law, like the ill-conceived Cybercrime Prevention Act; this was a measure which, during its glacial progress through Congress, allowed for input from every interested party. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines may have already forgotten, but it engaged both Congress and Malacañang in the effort to cobble together an acceptable version. That in the end its supporters lost the legislative battle is not a reason to run crying to the high court.
We are especially concerned about the 120-day period the tribunal prescribed. We realize it used exactly the same tack in managing the case involving the Cybercrime Law, down to scheduling oral arguments about a month before the order expires. But there is a crucial difference. Lives are at stake, literally, in the suspension of the RH Law.
Depending on which source one uses, there may be as many as 14 mothers who die in the Philippines every day, from preventable pregnancy problems or complications from unsafe abortions. The RH Law was designed first and foremost to lower maternal mortality, by providing pregnant women, especially those who cannot afford it, adequate maternal care, and preventing the need for abortions. If we assume that because of the law’s suspension, at least one woman who could have been helped by it has instead passed away, we cannot escape the tragic conclusion: Many, many women will die from the high court’s leisurely approach to a life-or-death issue.
As we have asserted before, the arguments against the RH Law are essentially based on a sweeping interpretation of its provisions. A reading of the law should suffice to reassure the public that it does not promote a proabortion policy. In the words of principal sponsor Rep. Edcel Lagman: “The RH Law does not legalize abortion. In fact, it acknowledges that abortion is illegal and punishable and is not a family planning option or method.” So the abortion argument against the law disregards the plain meaning of its provisions, and seeks to impose an alarmist interpretation instead.
It is the same thing with the argument involving freedom of religion. A reading of the law should suffice to reassure the public that it does not forbid the exercise of religious conscience. Lagman again: “The act is replete with provisions upholding freedom of religion and respecting religious convictions. The guarantee of freedom of informed choice is an assurance that no one would be compelled to violate the tenets of his religion or defy his religious convictions against his free will and own discernment of his faith.” The petitioners’ argument from freedom of religion disregards the plain meaning of the provisions.
It is unfortunate that these arguments based on a breathtaking notion—that the provisions of a new law do not in fact mean what they say—have been given the proverbial day in court. It is a greater misfortune that that day is still many months, and lives, away.