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Free speech and RH

“I must have led a blameless life,” I quipped to my companions as we stood outside the Pasay City Hall of Justice Wednesday afternoon. For the first time in my life, I was going to enter a court room and experience a court hearing, and what do you know, the case involved an issue concerning reproductive health—and free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion, even.

The case involved a petition for a temporary restraining order against the Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health Rights being held at the Philippine International Convention Center (today, Friday, is the last day).

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In the petition filed by Pro-Life Philippines Foundation Inc., it was alleged that if the conference, which involves about 1,500 participants from all over the Asia and Pacific region, including the Philippines, would be allowed to push through, it would result in “offenses against decency, good customs and public policy.”

The petitioners zeroed in on two workshops that were to take place yesterday: one on “Women’s Right to Safe Abortion Services,” and another on “Access to Medical Abortion.” As the counsel from Pro-Life insisted, because abortion is illegal in our statutes, holding such workshops is likewise illegal in this country, much less in a government-owned (PICC is owned and managed by the central bank) facility.

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The petition, let me point out, was filed on the eve of the conference’s opening, and if the TRO had been granted, it would have led to the padlocking of the PICC premises, and, to my mind, the blackening of the image of the Philippines not just to the numerous foreign delegates, but to the whole world, laying to waste our Department of Tourism’s drive to promote conference tourism.

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Though initially fazed, the conference organizers decided to fight the petition in court and contacted friends in the legal profession to come to their defense.

Acting as counsel for the Philippine NGO Council on Population, Health and Welfare, the lead organizer, were lawyers Harry Roque, Beth Pangalangan and Joven Dellosa. As agreed among themselves, Roque tackled the “free speech” aspect while Pangalangan handled the arguments for “academic freedom.” Dellosa focused on the “material” damage that would result if the TRO were granted.

Lawyers Sophia Obreta-Palad and Hermie Ocampo from the Office of the Solicitor General represented the Department of Health and the Population Commission, which were also named as respondents. Representing the PICC and Bangko Sentral Governor Amando Tetangco was Olive Cornejo. Former congressman (and RH champion) Edcel Lagman sent a written argument (I guess he couldn’t navigate the stairs up to the third-floor courtroom), and Sen. Pia Cayetano, another RH stalwart, walked into the courtroom midway through the arguments.

For a first-timer in a courtroom, I found my initial exposure dismaying, to say the least. The corridors were filled with broken-down chairs and rusty filing cabinets. The wooden benches in the courtroom were rickety and the paint was peeling. To be fair, however, the Hall of Justice, which stands right beside City Hall, is undergoing renovation.

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But enough of the cosmetic.

As Roque argued, “no abortions will be performed at the conference.” What would take place was mere “talk,” with foreign delegates presenting papers on the treatment of abortion-seekers at the hands of police and “the health, justice and prison systems”; “the sociocultural-economic aspects of decision-making that influence uptake of safe abortion services among women”; and a comparison of the situation of women in Iran and Indonesia seeking abortions.

Roque argued that to stop these speakers, among others, from just talking about the topic and presenting the findings of their studies is to curtail free speech and the unfettered exchange of ideas which are the lifeblood of democracy. Pangalangan argued that the researchers and scholars had every right to share the findings of their papers, and that this was all in the service of enlightenment.

Dellosa argued that stopping the conference would result in “irreparable harm” to the organizers as it had taken them two years to prepare for the conference, and that millions of pesos had already been spent to book flights and accommodations and pay the PICC. The PICC counsel argued that as the mere “venue” for the conference, it had nothing to do with the contents or conduct of the discussions.

Gita Sen, a world-famous economist and women’s studies authority, graciously agreed to represent the foreign delegates just in case Judge Petronillo Sulla wanted to hear from one. I wonder what she thought of the Philippine judicial system after the hearing, never mind Philippine court buildings.

At the end of the hearing, Judge Sulla merely told the Pro-Life lawyer to “consider your petition filed,” although, as others pointed out, if he wanted to issue the TRO, he could have done so then and there.

* * *

Fortunately, other voices, other views prevailed at the formal opening of the conference. A presentation by El Gamma Penumbra encapsulated, in dance and images, the main issues surrounding reproductive health.

Health Secretary Enrique Ona reiterated the government’s support for reproductive health, saying that despite the “challenges and struggles,” the Aquino administration remained committed to advancing the “health and fulfillment of women and men.”

Also present at the opening were Kate Gilmore, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, and its former director Nafis Sadik, the “mother” of the groundbreaking Cairo Conference on Population and Development.

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TAGS: column, court injunction, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, reproductive health, Rina Jimenez-David
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