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Sour grapes, and sweet, on RH Law

I wasn’t  able to react quickly to the April 8 Supreme Court decision on the Reproductive Health Law as I was then preparing for back-to-back trips abroad. This allowed me ample time to reflect on the landmark decision as well as on the host of reactions and commentaries that came in its wake. Unexpectedly, the verdict begot not one but two sweet surprises, seemingly gratifying both sides of the RH divide.

The pro-RH side (“pros”), sitting on edge about a possible cliff-hanger decision, was understandably elated by what turned out to be a unanimous decision that the main thrust of the law was not unconstitutional. But no sooner had the pros started celebrating than the anti-RH group (“antis”) loudly claimed victory for the unconstitutionality judgment on eight provisions of the law that mostly have to do with conscientious objection and spousal and parental consent in nonemergency cases.

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There are two ways of parsing the reaction of the antis. One is that they are not losers engaging in sour grapes and deserve praise for being good sports. The other is that they are merely consoling themselves—consuelo de perdedores. Or engaging in “sweet grapes,” maybe?

Consider, however, the ferocity and persistence with which the antis have attacked the RH bill and its adherents since the onset 15 years back, or even the government’s family planning program initiated as early as 1970. Epithets cast at the pros included: RH is antilife; RH causes cancer; contraception is corruption; RH supporters are immoral, are abortionists, are murderers; etc. Note, too, that the eight provisions struck down in the high court’s majority decision were merely ancillary arguments or means to the petitioners’ goal, which was to kill the law. They were uncompromising, and the eight provisions were evidently not the casus belli.

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Comes now Bernardo Villegas, economic spokesperson-apparent of the conservatives, engaging in sour grapes on the high court’s verdict in his commentary “RH Law has weak foundations” (Opinion, 4/26/14). He writes: “Defenders of the RH Law are frantically shifting to very questionable arguments about reducing teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality. As Nobel Laureate George Akerlof demonstrated empirically, the widespread information on and access to contraceptives in the 1960s resulted in the explosion in the number of single mothers and abortions in the United States. Akerlof coined the phrase ‘contraceptive shock’ to refer to this phenomenon.” Incidentally, this is not the first time he argues the same point and invokes Akerlof.

But a careful reading of Akerlof’s and Janet Yellen’s “An Analysis of Out-Of-Wedlock Births in the United States” (Brookings Institution Policy Brief No. 5, also in Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1996) will show that Villegas badly misread the paper. This is what the authors say: “Around 1970, the United States experienced a reproductive technology shock. The legalization of abortion and dramatic increase in the availability of contraception gave women the tools to control the number and timing of their children. Over the ensuing 25 years, however, there have been huge increases in the number of single-parent families headed by unmarried mothers.” They conclude: “In our view, it was the technology shock itself that, by eroding the age-old custom of shotgun marriage, paradoxically raised out-of-wedlock birth rates instead of lowering them. If so, cuts in welfare benefits will have little effect on out-of-wedlock births, serving mainly to lower the standard of living of the country’s poorest children.”

It is unfortunate how a piece of scientific research showing a specific cause-and-effect nexus and conclusion can be misconstrued, if not deliberately twisted, to serve a particular purpose. In this example, Villegas construed Akerlof’s (and Yellen’s) finding that “contraceptive shock” (his phrase, not Akerlof’s) directly resulted in the explosion in the number of single mothers and abortions. By contrast, the finding of Akerlof and Yellen was that legalized abortion and a “reproductive technology shock” led to the erosion of the age-old custom of shotgun marriage which, in turn, raised out-of-wedlock birth rates.

Consequently, the policy prescriptions are sharply divergent. For Villegas, an uncompromising “no” to RH. For Akerlof and Yellen: “Better family planning education, birth control advice, and requirements forcing fathers to pay child support are more promising policies to reduce out-of-wedlock births.”

Villegas then proceeds to marshal for the nth time the old and tired argument that Thomas Malthus’ hypothesis of famine and death owing to food shortages caused by population growth has been proven wrong by advances in science and technology. It’s unlikely, though, that Malthus claimed to be a prophet. Neither is it true that food shortages—and environmental degradation, to boot—are nonissues in many parts of the world in this day and age.

The conservatives appear to be running out of arguments, but they are not burying the hatchet. Even the apparent “sweet grapes” could be misleading. The fact that they are doing the absurd—claiming victory—implies that they have not given up and are going to make a comeback. Already, the reactionaries in Congress and in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines have declared that they would work for the repeal of the law—perhaps in the new dispensation post-2016.

The pros must not let their guard down. The motion for reconsideration on the RH Law’s eight provisions submitted to the Supreme Court last April 28 is in order. Another obvious critical move is to help make sure that the next president is a sound-thinking and politically unselfish one.

Ernesto M. Pernia ([email protected]) is professor emeritus of economics at the University of the Philippines and former lead economist of the Asian Development Bank.

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TAGS: Commentary, Ernesto m. pernia, opinion, reproductive health law, RH Lawy
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