Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Sounding Board

‘Conscientious objectors’ to RH

The story is told—a true story, I am assured—of a priest in the staff of a seminary, who was feeling overwhelmed by the number of seminarians going to his room for confession. In self-defense he put up a sign outside his room saying, “Mortal Sins Only.” It effectively shortened the line of troubled penitents.

I would not consider this an example of a conscientious objector, but it is remotely analogous.  The name “conscientious objector” is of military origin. It refers to people who refuse to go to war for religious reasons. Examples abound and they date back to as early as the 16th century wars, when William the Silent granted the Dutch Mennonites the right to refuse military service in exchange for a monetary payment. Since then many people have been executed, imprisoned, or otherwise penalized for acting according to their beliefs. But as Muhammad Ali put it, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…. They never called me nigger.”

The implementation of the Reproductive Health Law does not involve warfare but it has occasioned intense skirmishing among various religious groups. In an earlier article, I wrote about the controversy as a war of religions. It is no surprise therefore that the concept “conscientious objector” has crept into the RH Law.


In the enumeration of punishable acts, Section 23(3) mentions: “(3) [Refusal] to extend quality health care services and information on account of the person’s marital status, gender, age, religious convictions, personal circumstances, or nature of work: Provided, That the conscientious objection of a health care service provider based on his/her ethical or religious beliefs shall be respected; however, the conscientious objector shall immediately refer the person seeking such care and services to another health care service provider within the same facility or one which is conveniently accessible . . .”

The rules and regulations for implementing this provision elaborate on penal provision.  The rules make a distinction between “Private Skilled Health Professionals” who are conscientious objectors and “Public Skilled Health Professionals,” i.e., between private practitioners and government employees. For the private health practitioner, the rules and regulations allow him/her  to put up a sign on the door to his/her office “enumerating the reproductive health services he or she refuses to provide.” The sign would be as effective as the “Mortal Sins Only” sign of the seminary priest.

For the public health professional, however, it is more complicated: “a) The skilled health professional shall explain to the client the limited range of services he/she can provide; b) Extraordinary diligence shall be exerted to refer the client seeking care to another skilled health professional or volunteer willing and capable of delivering the desired reproductive health care service within the same facility; c) If within the same health facility, there is no other skilled health professional or volunteer willing and capable of delivering the desired reproductive health care service, the conscientious objector shall refer the client to another specific health facility or provider that is conveniently accessible in consideration of the client’s travel arrangements and financial capacity; d) Written documentation of compliance with the preceding requirements.”

For some opponents of the RH Law this is definitely not enough. Aside from the fact that it can be a cumbersome procedure, the opponents also consider this equivalent to making them tell

others where the sinful medical procedure can be accessed, aside from violating a person’s freedom not to say anything. Equivalently, they consider it telling a person to jump out of the frying pan into the fire!

If they really are so conscientious, how would they in conscience not provide for the health needs of those who cannot afford private health services? Is it not a fact that referrals to other doctors is common in the medical profession? If a doctor feels that he or she is not competent to handle a problem, it is normal for him or her to refer the patient to someone else more competent. Competence or incompetence, after all, is a very broad term. It can include religious incompetence.

But then, rejoice! The RH Law might be the occasion for the creation of more Filipino saints.  Look at the possible penalties involved for the prohibited acts:

“SEC. 24. Penalties.—Any violation of this Act or commission of the foregoing prohibited acts shall be penalized by imprisonment ranging from one (1) month to six (6) months or a fine of Ten thousand pesos (P10,000.00) to One hundred thousand pesos (P100,000.00), or both such fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the competent court: Provided, That, if the offender is a public officer, elected or appointed, he/she shall also suffer the penalty of suspension not exceeding one (1) year or removal and forfeiture of retirement benefits depending on the gravity of the offense after due notice and hearing by the appropriate body or agency.”


How many public functionaries in the health services can avail themselves of these opportunities for beatification? Although the possible penalties do not include beheading or burning at the stake, they are tough enough to make saints or blessed out of ordinary public servants.

You might say that they would be foolish to risk such punishment. But saints are fools for Christ, are they not?

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