Groups face-off on RH bill

By Caroline J. Howard, ABS-CBN News Channel

Posted at Oct 19 2010 03:11 AM | Updated as of Oct 21 2010 04:36 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Pro-life and pro-choice advocates faced-off on the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill as the Senate Committee on Health and Demography held discussions on the controversial issue on Monday.

Health Undersecretary Alex Padilla says the purpose of the bill is to raise the quality of family life by encouraging proper birth spacing and providing relevant information to couples.

"The central issue is not on the number of children a family can have but the quality of life given to children, and this is a decision of the couple, not one of the spouses unilaterally. Couples must be equipped with information on available options for family planning and responsible parenthood, the informed and responsible choice of the couples with respect to their religious and social norms and human rights," he says. 

"We are dedicated to pursue our international commitment to achieve MDGs [Millennium Development Goals] 4 and 5 by 2015, which aim to significantly cut maternal and child deaths and make universal health services accessible to our people. To ensure these are achieved, the DOH [Department of Health] must make sure information and services targeted towards men woman and children are integrated into the mainstream of public health services," Padilla says.

In attempts to contain and put order to the discussions and tame potentially contentious debates, Senate committee chair Senator Pia Cayetano wanted to focus on how the measure could be taken in connection with meeting Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Still, Senate discussions took a life of their own as contentious debates turned to determining when conception actually begins.

Contentions on conception

Former Senator Joey Lina, who admits to studying literature on contraceptives, says it was clear that one mechanism of such tools was to prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum on the uterine wall.

"Our position is human life begins at conception. The DOH position is against the very concept abhorred by the Constitution, but in fact, the bill allows it and in fact promotes the dispensing of intra-uterine devices and contraceptive pills. Studies show all these have a mechanism, including preventing implantation of fertilized ovum to the uterine wall," Lina says.

"Senator Lina speaks of contraceptives as if they were abortifacients, but as I explained in the House of Representatives, pills are given to prevent ovulation, so there's nothing for sperms to fertilize," clarifies Dr. Santiago Del Rosario, Chairman of the Committee on Ethics and Medical Practice.

Inherently abortifacient?

Citing sections 7, 9 and 10 of the bill, which promote what he calls the use of "inherently abortifacient" pills and devices, Lina says, the measures runs in conflict with the Constitution.

"Even as the State takes care of the health of the people and defends the right of the couple to raise a family, the State cannot but comply with the constitutional requirement to protect the life of both the mother and the unborn. Unfortunately Sections 7, 10 and 9 of this bill, which promote use of pills and devices which are inherently abortifacient, run in conflict with this constitutional provision," Lina says. "Drafters of 1987 Constitution were clear on it and banned any substance what could impede the natural flow of the fertilized ovum."

Unconstitutional provisions

Former Senator Francisco Tatad, a pro-life advocate, agrees.

"There are many provisions of the bill that are very good, that can be implemented even without legislation, but the kernel of the bill is unconstitutional. The real issue here is not the freedom of the woman to use contraceptives but to expand the power of the State into areas of human life where it has no business at all whatsoever," Tatad says.

Tatad notes how international treaties, including those of the World Health Organization, identified access to abortion among the components of reproductive health, adding America appeared determined to remove all barriers to that access.

He also lamented how President Aquino had supposedly articulated his personal position on family planning, even before the matter could be taken up by legislators.

"In spite of our agreement that the bill does not include abortion, how do we ward off the international lobby which is spending oodles of dollars to push abortion acts in developing countries," Tatad says. "Not the least of my concerns is, before we could start hearing this bill, the president said he was ready to start distributing condoms."

Getting to the bottom of the issue

But after emotions were set aside, both sides got down to the real issues, like maternal mortality and the country's poverty situation.

"Maternal mortality should be broken down into regions to see where the problem lies. And in attaining Millennium Development Goals and promoting health among people in relation to pregnancy, the State cannot but follow Constitution," Lina says.

Former Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez says the current government may very well learn from the lessons of the past.

"Nine years ago, a government that favored reproductive health services was replaced by a government that did not support such provisions, and the figures with respect to population growth rate and mortality and morbidity rates showed reproductive health deteriorated than when the national government did not support reproductive health," he says.

Today, Romualdez says, a reproductive health bill may yet allow the country to attain some of the goals it is currently hard-pressed to meet, given current policies on reproductive health and population.