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Seeking justice from the justices: RH again

09:55 PM July 28, 2013

Having been defeated on the approval of the reproductive health bill in both the legislative and executive branches of government, the lay allies of the Catholic bishops have now turned their sights on the judiciary. The 15 petitions filed at the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Republic Act 10354 identify contraception, in particular, as mocking the nation’s values on life, motherhood and family life, fostering genocide, and denying freedom of religion, speech and more.

But these attempts at using Catholic principles to reject the RH Law falter in the light of contrary empirical evidence. Our justices will thus surely wish to examine why pro-RH Catholics feel that in the 21st century, there are other ways of understanding compassion, poverty, human rights, and development.

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By Aug. 6, the third session convened by the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on the RH Law, an estimated 2,000 Filipino women will have died in the 140 days since its suspension. This is the tragic consequence of the unrelenting opposition to reproductive health of its diehard critics. For every day of further postponement, another 14-15 women will give up their lives. Yet, utilizing the judicial process and arguing against the favorable opinions on RH of the vast majority of Filipinos and the decisions of our legislators and President, these remnants of the opposition continue to insist on  their  way as the only way.

Who suffers most from this unending diatribe? Women, especially poor women in urban slums and remote rural villages with little or no access to life-giving reproductive healthcare services offering contraceptive options. Most are also Catholics who, with six to as many as 12 or more children, die when their exhausted bodies finally surrender after giving birth year after year.

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Of all married women, 63 percent do not want to get pregnant anymore; for those who already have three children, the rate jumps to 81 percent. In 2010, an estimated 560,000 Filipino women, or almost one-third of pregnant women 15-44 years of age, opted for a clandestine abortion. Most felt they could not handle the cost of raising another child in their impoverished setting. Further haunting them was their inability to provide a better life for the children they already had.

These are the realities that make pro-RH Catholics striving to remain true to their faith conclude that Church leaders attacking RA 10354 are out of step with the times. In good conscience they feel compelled to reject their bishops’ exhortations on the subject as unrealistic in people’s lives. While our religious leaders regularly champion the Church of the Poor, they refuse to acknowledge the validity of poor couples who, in striving to emerge from poverty, want to choose when and how to plan their families, including using contraceptives. The overwhelming number of maternal deaths—far higher than the rest of Southeast Asia—thus challenges the credibility of our Church leaders arguing against RH.

How, pro-RH Catholics ask, can a Church that professes to be for the poor virtually ignore the plight of the over 5,000 Filipino women who die annually during pregnancy or childbirth? And what of the semiorphaned children they leave behind? One can only conclude that those who refuse to accord couples the right to opt for contraception as part of modern family planning in effect contribute to a woman’s choosing abortion as her only suitable alternative.

Pro-RH Catholics who take exception to Church leaders’ interpretations rely on empirical evidence based on the current scientific consensus and their own lived experience. They are thus disturbed when, at the Supreme Court, Church-related forces recycle the unfathomable question of when life begins, equating Food and Drug Administration-regulated contraceptive medicines to abortifacients and genocide, asserting questionable local autonomy concepts, and charging violations of freedoms that the RH Law in fact upholds.

Since pro-RH Catholics usually want to remain loyal to their bishops, many experience considerable anxiety at having to adopt contrary views. This is especially so when both sets have collaborated successfully in mutually agreed priorities—the defense of poor farmers, indigenous people’s rights, the coconut levy, anticorruption, and the Mindanao peace accord. When it comes to women and sex, however, lay Catholics are baffled by the Church’s apparent unwillingness to consider alternative views held by reputable scientists and couples on sex and love. Where is the “listening Church” that Cardinal Luis “Chito” Tagle seeks?

Reform-minded Catholics today gain strength from the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity exhorting us to provide “expert attention and study” in the process of  aggiornamento, or Church reform. In 1988, Pope John Paul II urged “a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful.” Pope Benedict XVI added that Catholic laity are not merely collaborators but “co-responsible for the being and activity of the Church.” Pope Francis offered new hope for this shared mission when he said, “I would like to see a Church that is poor and is for the poor.”

Accordingly, reform-minded Catholics are taking up the cudgels in defense of RA 10354 as a law that is propoor and prowomen. As committed members of the laity, we have faith that our justices will sustain our efforts to help our bishops listen to their people.

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Mary Racelis is a research scientist at the Institute of Philippine Culture, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches social anthropology at the Ateneo and University of the Philippines graduate schools.

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