MANILA, Philippines - President Aquino will discuss the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) bill, which he is supporting, with members of the House of Representatives in a luncheon meeting in Malacañang on Monday.
Both supporters and critics of the measure were invited to the Palace meeting. However, not all opposed to the bill will attend, like Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez who begged off yesterday.
“With all due respect to the Speaker and the President, may I beg off from attending the Malacañang lunch on Monday? My opposition to the RH bill is based on my conscience and religious conviction,” he said in a text message to reporters.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., however, said Aquino just sent out invitations to lawmakers for lunch but was not exactly expected to make an overt pitch for the bill.
“I think the closest thing the President will ask for is to put the measure to a vote,” Belmonte said in a telephone interview. “I think we have reached a point, long overdue, to vote on this.”
“From the beginning, that has been our position. Let’s just vote on this bill to end the debates,” he said, adding the same bill has been discussed thoroughly in the past several Congresses.
A pro-RH bill lawmaker said prior to the 1 p.m. lunch, Aquino would have a caucus with Liberal Party (LP) congressmen in Malacañang, giving the President an opportunity to gauge whether or not to give marching orders for the chamber’s majority to pass the bill.
The lawmaker said at least two of the four Deputy Speakers – Northern Samar Rep. Raul Daza and Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia – strongly oppose the bill even if they are with the administration.
Monday’s meeting will be the second time for Aquino to discuss with House members the controversial RH measure.
In a Palace meeting last Aug. 6, Aquino pleaded with lawmakers to end floor debates on the measure. They heeded and voted to move the proposed law to the period of amendments.
But since then and up to last Monday, no single amendment has been introduced due to parliamentary maneuvers employed by the anti-RH bloc, which has vowed to use every trick in the book to derail the bill.
Things finally came to a head on Monday, when the House succeeded in mustering a quorum of 174.
Taking advantage of the quorum, Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II called the bill for amendments, something he had not been able to do since Aug. 6.
He then proceeded to introduce the first major amendment: substituting a less contentious compromise version he and Speaker Belmonte had authored for the original bill principally authored by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman.
The House overwhelmingly approved the amendment by substitution. It is now the compromise version that is on deck.
On Tuesday, the House failed to continue the discussion on the bill due to again, lack of quorum.
The chamber had enough attendance on Wednesday but did not take up the measure.
Monday’s caucus will also come amid calls from RH supporters outside the House and pleas from RH authors for Aquino to intervene and certify the bill as urgent, respectively.
They believe a little more push from Aquino would get the measure approved and bring their 13-year fight for the proposed RH law to a successful conclusion.
Enrile not voting
After keeping the RH bill hanging with his proposed amendments, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile admitted he has no intention of voting for the measure even if all of his amendments would be accepted.
During the weekly forum at the Senate yesterday, Enrile laid down his cards and removed whatever doubts remained about his stand on the RH bill.
“I will tell you very frankly, I’m not a hypocrite, I speak out according to my best assessment of what is good for the country. My vote is against the RH, the reproductive health bill,” he said.
Enrile and Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III have been the most vocal critics and the most active participants in the debates on the RH bill since it was introduced almost two years ago.
RH bill proponents Senators Pia Cayetano and Miriam Defensor-Santiago have been pushing for an end to the debates and to have the measure put to a final vote.
The two female lawmakers have criticized Enrile and Sotto for employing delaying tactics so a vote would not be taken on the bill.
Two weeks ago, Enrile said he was not ready to introduce his proposed amendments to the bill and that he did not know when he would be ready.
This, according to Santiago, is highly unusual and discourteous to the sponsor of the bill who has been patiently waiting to see an end to the debates.
Enrile eventually introduced six of his 17 proposed amendments last Nov. 19, many of which were not accepted by Cayetano, the sponsor of the bill.
“(I will not vote for the RH bill) even if they accept my proposal. Not because of religion, not because of morality but because of my long-term assessment of what this bill will do for the country,” he said.
“To tell you the truth, my purpose in proposing some of my amendments is to show the people that this bill is not really all for the health of the women, it is a control and management of the population,” he added.
Enrile said passing the bill into law would have severe repercussions on the economy. He said the measure would kill one of the country’s most valuable exports, the overseas Filipino worker (OFW).
“Our biggest export is the OFW, that is an export. That is why I am against the RH bill. What will drive growth in our country is our excess population who are accustomed to accept work overseas, which the others won’t. We have to accept that,” he said.
Newly installed Cardinal Antonio Luis Tagle was non-committal when asked about his views on the controversial bill, although he said his views and opinions are not far from that of bishops in the country.
“That has been an issue for years, and the views and opinions of the bishops in the Philippines are not different from my views,” Tagle said in press briefing held at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) following his arrival yesterday from the Vatican.
When asked about the biggest crisis confronting the Filipino Catholic today, he answered: “It will take me 30 days to answer that question, but off the cuff, we are not too far off to what is happening in other places.”
He said Pope Benedict XVI told them the role of a Cardinal is to be near the masses or workers – one of the closest collaborators of the Pope so that all of his flock is to spread what the church calls “Communion.”
He warned Filipino Catholics to be cautious of what is going on in other countries that face a crisis of faith, or the loss of belief in God.
He said we should avoid reaching a point where many of us will say, “It seems all right, it appears that we can live without the need for God.” – With Marvin Sy, Rudy Santos, Paolo Romero