(Video: Kabayan LA)
(HN, December 17, 2012) - Today in the Philippines both the Senate and the House of Representatives backed a bill that has been debated for 13 years, and defied the powerful Roman Catholic Church to vote in favor of state-funded contraception. Many women and supporters celebrated as news of the bill became known, though the two chambers passed slightly different versions of the bill, and they need to agree on a common version to put before President Benigno Aquino, who hopes to sign it into law by the end of the year.
This was the fourth attempt to pass a bill dealing with family planning issues in the heavily Catholic island nation with more than 80% of the population, 'religious'. The last three bills were blocked by the Church and its political allies - including revered boxer-turned-congressman Manny Pacquiao - who say the law could corrupt `moral values'. They say they will continue to oppose the new bill.
Supporters say it is a vital human rights measure in the impoverished country with one of the highest mortality rates in the region. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a key backer of the law, said that, despite the Church's opposition, "there is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come".
Opposers such as Bishop Gabriel Reyes say, "What the Church will do is to continue instructing our people, telling them the evils of contraceptives". "They should not accept it because contraceptives are not pro-poor. It's not pro-children or pro-family. It is harmful against women, children and family."
A government health survey in 2011 found that the maternal mortality rate had risen by 36% between 2006 and 2010. Many maternity hospitals are struggling to cope with the number of births - and the UN appealed to the Philippines earlier this year to pass the bill.
"An idea whose time has come" - (PERSPECTIVE)
What transpired in Congress on Monday showed us that our lawmakers can get something done if they really want to.
At the House of Representatives, the reproductive health bill was passed on third reading through a vote of 133 in favor, 79 against, with seven abstentions.
The Catholic bishops had vowed to put up a strong fight after their defeat - by a slimmer margin - last week, when 113 House members said yes to the RH bill and 104 said no. Over the weekend, letters were read to the Catholic faithful from their Church leaders who reiterated that the measure was intrinsically evil. But no, the margin got even wider.
The bishops also hoped that the rabid opponents of the bill at the Senate would be able to sway their colleagues to block it upon second reading, also on Monday. The public was treated to a last-ditch showcase of tired arguments, the usual sanctimony and silly hairsplitting about sex having to be safe but not satisfying. There were also funny moments – like when a senator claimed to be the voice of the unborn child.
Nonetheless, the bill passed both second and third reading by a vote of 13-8.
Those belonging to the losing bloc insist that President Aquino dangled incentives to those who would vote in favor of the bill, or that the lawmakers who said yes to it were motivated by political gains.
They refused to acknowledge that support for the bill grew because of its own merit, not because of politics. Lawmakers crossed party lines in expressing their support or opposition to the bill.
Even the President was hesitant to show full support for the measure at the onset. He tried to change its name to responsible parenthood and to forge a dialogue with the Catholic bishops. He was not sure he could afford to alienate the men in robes who were his late mother’s staunchest allies.
The battle has been noisy. It has been put on the table and discussed in the public sphere. Filipinos listened, thought for themselves, formed their own opinion and made their voices heard by the lawmakers they elected to represent them.
The Catholic leaders say it is not over and they will bring the fight to other fora. Their arrogance and self-righteousness have doomed them to downfall.
In the end, Senator Miriam Santiago, author of the Senate version of the measure, summed it up well when she quoted Victor Hugo, who said: “There is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
The struggle has been long. Monday’s vote is as historic as it has been overdue. Next on the agenda is making sure the RH Law’s lofty objectives are not frustrated by bungled implementation.
"Church unfazed, will fight up to Supreme Court" - (PERSPECTIVE)
The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines on Monday said its fight against the Reproductive Health bill was not yet over despite the bill’s approval on third and final reading in the House of Representatives on a vote of 133-79 with seven abstentions.
And voting 13-8, the Senators also approved the same bill, which had been certified as urgent by President Benigno Aquino III, on third and final reading. The RH bill aims to guarantee universal access to the methods of contraception, fertility control, sexual education and maternal health care.
“We will continue the fight in other fora, to the Supreme Court and in the level of individual conscience,” Malolos Bishop Jose Oliveros said. “We have many allies at the Senate and we believe that their conscience will be their guiding principle in rejecting the RH bill”. He said they would be issuing a pastoral letter on Tuesday to be read in all the parishes nationwide.
“The RH bill is a major attack on authentic human values and on Filipino cultural values regarding human life that all of us have cherished since time immemorial,” Olivers said.
“Our position stands firmly on two of the core principles commonly shared by all who believe in God. As religious leaders we must proclaim this truth fearlessly in season and out of season.”
Legazpi Bishop Joel Baylon said the 104 congressmen who initially voted No to the RH bill on December 12 during its second reading were “witnesses in This Year of Faith.”
“They voted according to the dictate of their faith; we can verily recognize them as witnesses in this Year of Faith.” Pope Benedict XVI declared Oct. 11, 2012 to Nov. 24, 2013 as the Year of Faith.
Saranggani Rep. Manny Pacquiao said his crushing boxing defeat to Juan Manuel Marquez two days before the vote on the RH bill strengthened his opposition to it.
On Monday, Catholic youth groups questioned President Benigno Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign because of his support for the RH bill. “The bill contains excellent provisions, but it is rather like a cold soft drink with a drop of poison,” the groups said. “That poison is its provision on contraception. The RH bill seeks to subsidize the enjoyment of sex without the corresponding responsibilities that it entails.”