As I was boarding our vehicle in front of the Supreme Court building, having sneaked out a few minutes before the close of the second day of oral arguments in favor of the RH Law, I espied a man in a green T-shirt huddled before the fence and shouting.
“Obey God’s teachings!” he yelled. “Don’t follow the devil!” Pedestrians navigating the sidewalk in front of the compound studiously avoided him, while everyone else, including police hovering around the gate, seemed to be oblivious to his presence.
I snickered. The man certainly didn’t sound all that different from one or two Supreme Court justices whose tireless questioning of the law’s chief proponents—former representative Edcel Lagman and Sen. Pia Cayetano—betrayed their relentless opposition to the law, and their almost-obsessive preoccupation with a few provisions in the law and imagined dangers lurking in the future.
It was Lagman, who ends his stint in public life with this final struggle to get the RH Law, his “pet bill” in the last decade or so, out of the clutches of the Supreme Court, who put the controversial measure in perspective.
He told the Court that sponsors and proponents of the RH Law spent one-and-a-half decades shepherding the bill through the legislative labyrinth, “all questions were addressed, all those against were heard and accommodated, and the measure was exhaustively debated.” Thus, he could say that RA 14354 is in “absolute fealty with the Constitution.”
For her part, Cayetano wanted to know: “Why is it so difficult to give women the right to health?” Is it because good health empowers women? she asked. Does the reluctance stem from “a malicious view of women”? Or does it simply reveal “how low the petitioners view women”?
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Cayetano prefaced her argument with a PowerPoint presentation that brought a bracing touch of reality to the by-then stale and stultifying air in the tribunal. She opened with the stories of “real” women, in partial rebuke of the petitioners who had pooh-poohed the pro-RH position by remarking that “only” 15 Filipino mothers are dying every day due to causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
“Only 15 women?” Cayetano asked, proceeding to tell the stories (and showing the pictures) of some of these women—Ana who died while delivering her eighth child (who was also born dead); Marian who had lost her two youngest children at birth and then, after getting pregnant again despite a doctor’s warning that she was putting her life at risk, herself died along with the baby; and Lourdes, who ended up having to give away three of her children because she could no longer afford to feed them and their siblings.
“I sympathize with the mothers,” Associate Justice Roberto Abad remarked when his turn to question the senator came. While he recognized the need to save women’s lives, he said, he was disturbed at the prospect of “placing IUDs and contraceptives” in the bodies of millions of Filipino women of childbearing age to mitigate the risk of unwanted pregnancies. The drugs, Abad noted, posed a greater danger because they could be cancerous, citing a WHO study placing contraceptives under “Category 1” of cancer-causing substances.
To this Cayetano retorted that “Category 1” also covers “things like microwaves, cell phones and TV sets,” meaning that the cancer risk posed was of the lowest possible level.
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Throughout the questioning of both Lagman and Cayetano, Justice Abad, with one or two seeming anti-RH allies on the bench, harped on the “abortifacient” nature of contraceptives, particularly hormonal pills and injectables, and the copper IUD.
Time and again, reference was made to the responsibility given to the Food and Drug Administration to test contraceptives for “safety and efficacy,” including making sure that none of the drugs and devices on the market would cause unintended abortions since neither the justices nor legislators were competent to judge the mechanisms of contraceptives.
This focused perhaps unwanted limelight on Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go, FDA director, who sat in front of me in an area occupied by RH supporters. Health Secretary Enrique Ona (seated beside former health secretary Quasi Romualdez) started teasing Hartigan-Go by warning him that from then on the doctor should “get yourself a battery of lawyers.”
Also worth noting is the possibility that never in the annals of the Supreme Court did its chamber echo so loudly, fervently and often with references to “sex.”
When Cayetano protested, in the course of questioning by Abad regarding the teaching of sexuality and reproductive health in public schools, that not everything in the RH Law was about sex, Abad exploded (or so far as a justice could “explode”).
“What do you mean it is not about sex? The RH Law is about reproduction, and reproduction is about sex!” he exclaimed.
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Thank God and rationality then for Justice Marvic Leonen, the youngest member of the Supreme Court who seemed to take it upon himself to “correct” whatever misapprehensions his colleagues may have raised, and whatever illogic these justices might have imposed on the public.
To give an example, perhaps in reaction to Abad’s tirade on sex education, Leonen asked Cayetano: “Does the RH Law promote sex?” To which the senator replied that the law’s intention is to “make information available to those who need it.” Leonen’s follow-up: “Will teaching students about sex make them promiscuous?” No, said Cayetano. Indeed, “sexuality education prepares them to be responsible adults.”
Will the endless debates about the already much-debated RH Law please both sides? No, and perhaps never. But we are still a democracy.