AT THE outset I have to admit that I am no stranger to condoms and can attest to their effectiveness. I have four children and could have had more but my wife and I agreed that four was enough and implemented that plan accordingly. Furthermore, the bulk of my career had been in public service from the founding of the rural electrification program (early ?70s) to my stint in the Cabinet, and thus I have been to every nook and cranny of the Philippines and have seen the full range of poverty in our country. Given this quick background, one would think that I should be an obvious supporter of the Reproductive Health (RH) bill. I am not. I have serious misgivings about it.
First, I find it unnecessary. If as the supporters have time and again emphasized, the major shortcoming of our current population management program is the need for more widespread education and information, then I submit that the government presently has the breadth and depth of institutional capability to do this with the voluntary cooperation of the private sector, including the Church. If the observation is that the government has not done this well enough, this can be redressed with a good combination of political will and leadership and a better budget allocation, not a bill. True, the Church will promote only natural family planning methods. So be it. That?s the role and position of the Church. The state?s role is to help expand the public?s knowledge of choices, not limit it.
This leads me to my second serious misgiving, namely, the present draft bill contains punitive provisions that are tantamount to an affront to civil liberties and smack of religious persecution. Just read the section mandating private sector employees and private health practitioners to actively promote artificial birth control methods and distribute devices whether or not their conscience and religious convictions agree with the practice. Combine that with the section imposing penalties of imprisonment or fines or both if they don?t follow or are deemed guilty of ?perceived violations? and tell me that the bill does not encroach on basic civil rights. Tell me that the bill does not unfairly force a person into a moral dilemma, a State-induced struggle of conscience. This is not education, it?s coercion. This is not choice, it?s threat.
Of course, there are those who would say, ?don?t worry, the legislators will get rid of those provisions in the final version.? I wish I could be so sanguine as to simply smile and accept that. But I am not a novice of the legislative process and have been in the trenches of legislative battles often enough to know that a bill?s passage is not a clinical operation but goes from compromise to compromise and finally ends up with implementing rules and regulations to provide it with sharper enforcement teeth. Whatever the outcome, the law cannot be so toothless as to be useless, or why have a bill at all? If it is a law with teeth, it has to be enforced and enforcement of laws often involves the arena of litigation. Litigation on the other hand opens the door for abuses by the unscrupulous and the harassment of even the upright citizen. I don?t know about you, but I for one am not prepared to surrender one of my most sacred human rights and personal choices by seeing it transferred by the State from the arena of personal morality and conscience to the arena of legislation and litigation.
Finally, I find it truly disingenuous for anyone to proceed on the premise that the poor are to blame for the nation?s poverty. This seems to be one of the bill?s underlying economic philosophies?i.e., we could be such a richer nation if the poor would do something better than just go forth and multiply. Pardon me, but in the context of our income-distribution challenged society, the poor are often the victims, not the problem. And let?s not forget that it?s the poor, not the wealthy, whose acknowledged sacrifices as overseas workers are propping up this struggling economy. If a major concern of the bill is to help reduce poverty, then I cannot believe that the bill?s proponents and supporters are unaware of the many other major factors that are the root causes of poverty (poor governance, corruption, severely unequal distribution of wealth, low productivity, unattractive investment policies, etc.) and, of course, the many other alternatives that can be brought to bear to address them (giving up pork barrel, reforming land reform, raising tax collection efficiency, curtailing dynastic politics, etc.).
Yes, I am against having a bill. But don?t get me wrong, I am not against family planning. Neither is the Church. I may not even entirely agree with the Church?s position on family planning, but I would take offense at any attempt to caricature my Church?s stand for the purpose of foisting an uncalled for invasion of my private space.
Let?s join hands to educate the public particularly the poor, more broadly and more effectively, but let?s also join hands to keep the lid closed on a Pandora?s Box, which the RH bill is.
Roberto F. de Ocampo is a former finance secretary and Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 1997.