Pawning the RH bill- conclusion

It is a rainy morning in late March and Ramon San Pascual has just finished drafting his resignation letter to the board of directors of the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development, where he has worked since 1998. He is leaving his job as executive director.

He will be moving to Bangkok May 1 at the latest, to assume the executive directorship of the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians for Population and Development—an umbrella organization of 26 member-committees from various Asian countries. San Pascual will be replacing an Indian who held the post for 19 years. He will be the first Filipino on the job.

But is there a sense of frustration, or a lack of closure, at leaving the PLCPD – the primary group moving for the passage of the controversial reproductive health bill—at this critical juncture? In my column last week I described this administration’s initial enthusiasm for the bill, an enthusiasm that fizzled out especially with the start of the impeachment trial in December.

The Philippines is only one of three Asian countries that do not yet have legislation for reproductive health—the other two being East Timor and Myanmar. So isn’t it odd that somebody from our country was chosen to head a group that works with lawmakers to push measures in issues of human development?

“Actually I believe it was a plus factor in their decision to hire me,” San Pascual says. “[The AFPPD] appreciated my experience working with lawmakers. We filed the first version of the RH bill in 1998, and despite its not having been passed yet, we have gone a long way. The whole world is watching us—if we have enough perseverance, enough tenacity.”

He adds: “I have learned many lessons and I am ready to take these lessons with me to a higher level.”

He says that one of his objectives is to strengthen other national committees in working with their lawmakers.

Another objective is to make congress a congress of the people. The Philippines is currently classified as a low middle income country. But this does not reflect the gross inequity that weighs us down.

Inequity in health, for instance. Many women find themselves empowered, knowing what they must do in order to have a better life for themselves and their families. But the sad reality is that so much more do not. In fact, they are kept in the dark by convention, by religion, by the lack of access to information.

Alas, the RH bill, which would ideally bring empowerment through education and choice to these women— while it does not purport to solve ALL population and development issues—is held hostage by other factors that are more political than developmental.

San Pascual has a nagging feeling: “Nakasanla ang RH bill in favor of a bigger issue (The RH bill is being pawned in favor of a bigger issue).”

And when two years ago he was confident that President Benigno Aquino III is a president who knows what must be done and would actually do it, San Pascual now says: “I now doubt his capacity and his tenacity.”

When he thought he knew House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte through reproductive health programs in Quezon City, “[Now} I have no more respect for his determination.”

To be sure, determination is not a foreign word in this administration. After all, President Aquino is bent on convicting impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona at all costs—even if that cost comes in a convenient bargaining tool like a church-opposed piece of legislation. The Catholic Church still wields significant political power in this country—and the bishops know it and use it to the hilt.

San Pascual does not doubt that Mr. Aquino was sincere when he uttered the promises he made many years ago. Look at how hard he is working to make waves in the fight against graft and corruption, personified, in his mind, by his predecessor Gloria Arroyo and her allies like Corona.

But reforms in human development? Sincerity is one thing. Political will, strength of leadership, and perspective are quite another.

It is good to be determined to stop graft and corruption in high places. But it is not good to give in to an “un-presidential, debilitating obsession” to quash one’s enemies at the expense of other issues that need to be addressed.

“Impeachment is not the be-all of governance,” San Pascual says. There are many other things, equally important things, to attend to.

So what is the future of the bill under this administration? Controversial laws in this country were given attention to because of dramatic, supervening events, San Pascual says. It took the Mendiola massacre of 1987 to emphasize the importance of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. It took the tragedy of Ondoy and succeeding storms to pass the Climate Change Act.

What would it take for our leaders to act, finally, on the RH bill? San Pascual wishes they would not wait for another tragedy.