Sounding Board

Levels of discourse in the RH debate

IF THE debate on the RH bill appears often frustrating and sometimes verging on the chaotic, it is largely because the participants in the debate frequently communicate on different levels of discourse thereby evading real engagement. Many rarely make the necessary distinctions, nuancing and clarifications. The result can be like listening to people arguing on different radio frequencies.

But this is largely inevitable for at least two reasons: first, the disagreements can legitimately be on different topics and, second, there is no director who can manage the ordering of topics for discussion. Thus the debate can mix basic constitutional issues, family planning, population control and national development issues, drug control or regulation and even criminal process in a hodgepodge of confusion.


The debate on the constitutional level alone already offers abundant material for levels of disagreement. The core issues arise from the non-establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

The non-establishment clause, popularly but not always precisely referred to as separation of church and state, can mean different things for different people. The core meaning is that it prohibits the establishment of a state religion. Historically for the Philippines, it means the denial to the Catholic church of the privileged position it occupied under Spanish sovereignty. Corollary to the cutting down of the privileged position of the Catholic church has been the recognition of the equal position of other religions.


Beyond the prohibition of a state religion, non-establishment also means the prohibition of the use of public resources for the support or for the prohibition of religion. But public resources may be used for a legitimate secular purpose even if incidental benefit to religion might arise. The use of public money, for instance, for making safe contraceptive devices available to the poor falls under this aspect of the non-establishment clause.

Whichever way the RH debate is concluded, since the RH bill’s avowed purpose is secular, it can be accommodated within the non-establishment clause. But the more delicate issue is the free exercise clause.

It means the freedom to act according to one’s religious belief and the freedom from being compelled to act contrary to one’s religious belief. But there are those who argue that the RH debate is not about religion but about ethics and natural law. Even assuming that this is so, one must still ask, “Whose natural law? Whose ethical principles?” The Constitution also protects “natural law” belief or disbelief, if not through the religion clause, then through the free speech clause, where speech is involved, and through the due process and equal protection clauses when action is involved. But I myself hold that protected religion in the Constitution includes beliefs that are not traditionally theistic such as Buddhism, ethical culture and secular humanism. I view protected religion in the Constitution as encompassing beliefs and views which illuminate the “very ground of one’s being” and which give life meaning and direction.

Another constitutional issue is the right to life. It involves trying to identify when life begins and when there is contraception and when abortion. The most hilarious argument I have heard on this is that contraception is attempted murder! Whoever said that deserves a medal for I know not what. Moreover, the debate on the right to life includes controversies about family planning, population control and their relation to national development. Controversy on these subjects in the Philippines has had a long history involving the Catholic Church, government agencies, non-governmental organizations and international organizations.

Related to these are sex education as well as family life and family values. But as one sociologist has written, “The charge is made that the RH bill will destroy the Filipino family. On the basis of more than 25 years of pastoral and social work in Payatas, and some seven years sponsoring natural family planning programs, I can say that the family is already at great risk—and not because of contraceptives.”

After the constitutional issues, there are also what I might call pharmacological issues. There are claims, for instance, that there are contraceptive drugs in the market that cause abortion or are carcinogenic. What I would like to see is an authoritative identification of the drugs that are said to be abortifacient or carcinogenic so that they can be withdrawn from the market or their use subjected to medical regulation. So far I have seen only one drug identified as abortifacient, namely postinor. This was withdrawn from the market by the Food and Drug Administration. But the identification of drugs claimed to be abortifacient or carcinogenic should be authoritative in a manner that is fair to drug manufacturers and to those who rely on them for legitimate medical purposes.

Finally, however, the fate of the RH bill will be determined by Congress. Already we can see that some members of Congress are hedging their bets. The issues involved in the RH bill are real issues. But politicians are also thinking of the next election! Some of them will probably heave a sigh of relief if the RH bill disappears from the scene the way the impeachment of the Ombudsman disappeared from the scene.


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TAGS: abortifacient, contraceptives, debate, RH bill
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