Published in Manila Standard Today
By Elizabeth Angsioco
Sixteen is the number of years that the reproductive health bill has been languishing in Congress from being first filed in July 1995. Sixteen years is much too long a time for any bill to stay in Congress and not be voted on.
For the same length of time and using present data, nine million six hundred thousand (9,6000,000) adolescent Filipino girls have gotten pregnant; six million four hundred thousand (6,400,000) women have suffered from maternal morbidities and 64,240 women have died due to pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. Any which way one looks at these numbers, these are not defensible.
All the previous congresses that deliberated the RH bill did not take a vote. They simply halted the process in various stages. From the committees to plenary interpellation, it has been a struggle every inch of the way. The previous congress demonstrated how the presidency could dictate on our legislators: one call from Malacañang to the office of the then Speaker killed the RH bill.
The Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and its allies exerted and continue to exert all forms of delaying tactics to slow down and halt the legislative process.
Inside Congress, repeated objections, questions and argumentation; using technicalities such as questioning the quorum, repeatedly doing privilege speeches, and rising on personal and collective privilege; subverting rules like doing lengthy interpellation; using legalities such as constitutionality and other laws; etc. are employed to prevent voting on the bill.
Outside Congress, other tactics are used: threats against politicians, from excommunication, civil disobedience to campaigning against pro-RH legislators during elections; shame tactics using the pulpit and media; name calling against RH advocates; disinformation on the bill; using Catholic schools to brainwash young people; using local government units as test cases for anti-RH ordinances like what happened in Barangay Ayala Alabang and Balanga, Bataan; and many others.
For more than a decade, these have been going on. All arguments for and against the bill have been articulated and exhausted; all questions repeatedly answered; and all data from both sides presented. I doubt if legislators do not yet have positions on the bill even if some do not go public with it.
Most importantly, the Filipino people, including the Catholic majority, has repeatedly and clearly spoken in favor of family planning, government budgets for FP, RH education for the young, and the passage of the RH bill. These are the very things the Catholic Church and allies go against.
On the provision of RH education and services to young people, six Social Weather Stations local and national surveys in 2008 and 2009 showed that: 75 percent to 89 percent were in favor of and 6 percent to 16 percent were against the proposition. Eighty-one percent to 94 percent of respondents were Catholic.
On the passage of the RH bill, the same surveys plus one nationally done by Pulse Asia in October 2008 indicated that: 63 percent to 88 percent wanted the bill passed, 7 percent to 8 percent opposed it, with 81 percent to 94 percent Catholic respondents.
On government implementation of an FP program and provision of budget for this, six SWS and Pulse Asia national surveys from 2000 to 2010 revealed that: 90 percent to 97 percent favored having an FP program, and 82 percent to 89 percent wanted government to provide budgets for said program. Eighty-one percent to 87 percent of respondents were Catholic.
Very clearly therefore, the RCC hierarchy does not stand a leg in its opposition to government-implemented and financed FP program, RH education for the youth, and passage of RH bill. The Catholic laity has spoken—in favor of all these.
Moreover, there is no reason why Congress should continue to drag its feet on the bill. Legislators are elected to represent their constituents’ interests and even constituents of representatives staunchly opposed to the RH bill are overwhelmingly in support of its passage.
The House of Representatives’ public image is improving. Part of the reason for this is the perception that its present leadership has political will. Speaker Sonny Belmonte is also known as the force behind the Quezon City RH ordinance passed when he was city mayor. His positive image as Speaker is partly due to his favorable pronouncements on the RH bill including the statement that the bill will be put to a vote soon.
President Aquino remains popular. Like the Speaker, his popularity is partly due to his pro-RH/responsible parenthood stance which is included in his campaign promises. Notice that PNoy was severely criticized for the absence of RH in his Sona and this prompted his people, and the President himself to publicly explain.
It stands to reason therefore, that the Filipino people are closely watching whether our politicians will fulfil their RH promises. Further delaying voting on this will surely be criticized and may have repercussions in the popularity of both Congress and the President.
This need not happen IF the administration’s leadership will exercise political will. Look at what they did with the law synchronizing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao elections with national elections.
At the House, House Bill 4146 (on the ARMM elections postponement), was sponsored on the floor on March 16. Deliberations resumed on March 22 when it was approved on third and final Reading. Almost the same thing happened at the Senate, where the bill was approved in three session days: May 31, June 1, and finally, June 6.
In just three session days, a Malacañang-backed bill was passed by both Houses of Congress! If Malacañang and Congress will use the same political will, they can have the RH bill voted on and passed in a week’s time. If they want to, they can.
Everything that needs to be said about the bill has been said. It is time to stop all the talk. In the sixteen years that the reproductive health bill has been pending, more than nine million adolescent women have given birth, more than six million women have experienced maternal morbidities, and more than 64 thousand have died of pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. These must stop.
Sixteen years is too much. Congress should vote on the RH bill now.