MANILA (4th UPDATE) - The Philippines' highest court upheld Tuesday a controversial birth control law that supporters said would transform the lives of millions of poor Filipinos, despite bitter opposition from the powerful Catholic Church.
"The RH law is not unconstitutional," Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te told reporters, announcing a ruling that struck down petitions against the reproductive health law by church groups.
However, the high court partially granted the petition of pro-life advocates by declaring several provisions of the highly divisive Reproductive Health (RH) Law unconstitutional, including several provisions in section 7.
Te explained, however, that section 7 is only unconstitutional insofar as the law and its corresponding IRR “requires private health facilities and non-maternity specialty hospitals and hospitals owned and operated by a religious group to refer patients, not in an emergency or life-threatening case…to another health facility which is conveniently accessible.”
Section 7’s provision on “allowing minor parents or minors who have suffered a miscarriage access to modern methods of family planning without written consent from their parents or guardians” was also struck down.
Te said the provisions in section 7 were struck down by 11 justices. The four dissenters were: Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, and Justices Bienvenido Reyes, Estela Perlas-Bernabe, and Marvic Leonen.
Section 23.a.1 was also struck down insofar as “it punishes any health care provider who fails or refuses to disseminate information regarding programs and services on RH regardless of his or her religious beliefs.”
Section 23.a.2.1 was also declared unconstitutional only insofar as it allows “married individual, not in an emergency or life-threatening case…to undergo RH procedures without the consent of the spouse.”
Section 23.a.3 was also struck down insofar as “they punish any health care provider who fails/refuses to refer a patient not in an emergency or life-threatening case…to another health care service provider…”
Section 23.b was also dropped insofar as it punishes public officials “who refuse to support RH programs…or hinder the full implementation” of the law.
Section 23.a.2.ii was also adjudged unconstitutional insofar as “it penalizes a health service provider who will require parental consent from the minor in not emergency or serious situations.”
Another section struck down is section 17 but only insofar as the rendering of pro-bono RH services will “affect the conscientious objector in securing PhilHealth accreditation.”
Section 3.01.a and j of the IRR was also struck down since it uses the qualifier “primarily”. By using the qualifier, the law contravenes section 12, article II of the Constitution.
The justices are on their summer session in Baguio. Both pro- and anti-RH Law advocates also went up to the summer capital to lobby and monitor the ruling.
The controversial measure was signed into law last December amid a strong lobby against it by the Catholic Church.
The law allows the state to use public funds to educate the youth on reproductive health. It also allows couples the use of contraceptives.
The Catholic Church, which counts over 80 percent of the country's 100 million population as members, had led street protests denouncing the law as "evil", and at one point in its opposition campaign threatened Aquino with excommunication.
In signing the law in 202, Malacanang said: "The passage into law of the Responsible Parenthood Act closes a highly divisive chapter of our history—a chapter borne of the convictions of those who argued for, or against this Act, whether in the legislative branch or in civil society. At the same time, it opens the possibility of cooperation and reconciliation among different sectors in society: engagement and dialogue characterized not by animosity, but by our collective desire to better the welfare of the Filipino people. "
'A MONUMENTAL DECISION'
"This monumental decision upholds the separation of church and state and affirms the supremacy of government in secular concerns like health and socio-economic development," former Congressman Edcel Lagman, a principal author of the law, said immediately after the verdict.
"A grateful nation salutes the majority of justices for their favorable ruling promoting reproductive health and giving impetus to sustainable human development."
One of its hardline opponents and a petitioner to the court, former Senator Francisco Tatad, said allowing the law to take effect could force Catholics into an open revolt.
"This means civil disobedience at the very least, actual revolt at the most extreme," Tatad wrote in a commentary in the Manila Times newspaper on Tuesday.
"Some of us will want to defy the power of the devil and die as martyrs, if need be, in the only cause that gives us a chance to fight for something much bigger than ourselves."
Church leaders have helped lead two revolutions that toppled unpopular presidents in recent Philippine history, and they continue to insist they have a right to influence the parliamentary and legal branches of government.
Another example of its enduring influence is that the Philippines is the only country where divorce remains illegal.
Nevertheless, many people across the sprawling archipelago have embraced less conservative views in recent decades.
A recent survey carried by the respected Social Weather Stations polling group said about 84 percent of Filipinos agreed that the government should provide free family planning options such as contraceptives.
It said 72 percent were "in favor" of the law.
Women's rights groups and other supporters of the law say it will be a powerful tool in fighting poverty and cutting the birth rate of 3.54, one of the highest in the world.
More than a quarter of the population live on the equivalent of 62 cents a day, according to the government, and experts say there is an urgent need to provide free reproductive medical services that the poor can not otherwise afford.
More than a third of the capital's 14 million population live in sprawling slums, according to a 2010 World Health Organization report, and many of them do not have access to proper sanitation, let alone health centers.
According to the British medical charity Merlin, which has backed the passage of the law, 14-15 mothers die daily in the Philippines in complications related to child birth. - with Agence France-Presse