Miriam, Tito Sotto spar over RH bill

by Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 22 2011 10:32 PM | Updated as of Aug 23 2011 06:32 AM

MANILA, Philippines - "Mahihirapang magkumbinsihan dito."

This is how Senator Tito Sotto assessed the outcome of plenary debates on the reproductive health (RH) bill, after the first interpellation adjourned past 6 in the evening on Monday.

The interpellation, with RH bill co-sponsors Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and Senator Pia Cayetano defending the Senate version of the bill, began with the much-debated question of "Where does life begin?"

The senators indulged the question owing to the fact that it would define whether a contraceptive should be considered an abortifacient or not.

Both sides cited scientific documents that supported their claims, with some pegging "the beginning of life" at fertilization (the meeting of the egg and the sperm cell), while some quoted medical experts saying life begins when the fertilized egg is successfully implanted into the female uterus.

Santiago said that for senators to attempt to derive at an answer is both impossible and out of their expertise. "This is a hypothetical question. We can argue about this 'til kingdom come and never arrive at an answer. Even the medical profession cannot arrive at a concensus with this. Even I will refuse to adopt an opinion of someone who is not a doctor."

Majority Floor Leader Sotto, who is against the RH bill, then posed the question that given this seeming uncertainty, then should not people err on the side of caution. "If something is under a piece of paper and you're not sure if it's a piece of trash or a cat, do you run over it? Doesn't conscience tell you to verify if it is indeed unborn?"

After the plenary, Santiago admitted that remaining calm in the midst of strong opinion on life, faith and religion, was actually a strategy agreed upon by herself and co-sponsor Cayetano. "We talked about it and agreed that if it's just an opinion, we will just let them say all that they want, and then just tell them that we appreciate their opinion. We will only answer questions on the bill itself."

'No proof God is male'

During the debates, Santiago could not help but throw barbs at the opposing side. At one point, Sotto lectured the plenary on pretending to be all-knowing, saying "The only expert here is God. Until the time comes that we get to meet him, huwag tayong magdunung-dunungan."

To which Santiago quietly replied, "There is no proof that God is a male."

Sotto's main contention is that all the salient points of the RH Bill are already enshrined in existing laws such as the Magna Carta for Women, showing therefore that there is no need for another law that would "offend certain sectors and mandate people to use contraceptives."

Cayetano clarified that the Magna Carta is a general bill, while the RH bill will be a specific bill, and having 2 laws in agreement with each other does not constitute a redundancy.

Sotto also questioned a survey used by the sponsors of the bill, one which says 11 mothers die in the Philippines every day.

He said it was actually conducted by the USAID, a US agency allegedly known for its association to corporate makers of contraceptives.

'Cheap shot'

"Is this about money?" Sotto asked.

"That is not fair. That is a cheap shot," Santiago replied. "Anything the government does will make profit somewhere in any capitalist society. Let's elevate political discourse to a higher level."

When asked to elaborate, Santiago said, "Kahit naman yung rhythm method na gusto nila may kikita. Kikita ng pera yung mga gumagawa ng kalendaryo doon, di ba?"

While Santiago agreed that senators may have actually already come with their own biases, she said it was a huge advantage when President Benigno Aquino III endorsed the RH bill as a priority bill.

Those who may want to get in the President's good side may want to side with the RH bill, she said.

Senate will resume plenary debates Tuesday.