Pawning the RH bill - Part 1

In early June 2010, just after the election of President Benigno Aquino III and before his inauguration, I spoke with Ramon San Pascual, executive director of the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development, about the prospects of the reproductive health bill under the incoming administration.

At that time, San Pascual was confident that things would be different under Aquino. Under former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the bill was killed because the embattled chief executive used it as a bargaining chip to keep the Catholic church’s support amid her unpopularity and calls for her ouster.

San Pascual then felt that Aquino was a breath of fresh air, supporting couples’ right to exercise their free will about the manner in which to plan their families.

The impending speakership of just-elected Rep. Feliciano Belmonte was also, in San Pascual’s view, a boost to their cause. As mayor of Quezon City, Belmonte implemented reproductive health programs for his constituency.

But when I returned to the PLCPD office last week, San Pascual sounded anything but upbeat.

Indeed there was momentum in the beginning. The RH bill hurdled the committee-level discussions in record time. Building on Aquino’s vocal support of reproductive health (even as he preferred to call it “responsible parenthood”), lawmakers were ready with a committee report by March 2011. Voting and eventual passage seemed imminent.

In August 2011, the measure was included in the priority measures of the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council. Debates were begun in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill’s advocates welcomed the interpellations, hoping public awareness and a sense of urgency would prod congressional leaders to bring the bill to a vote by December. Advocates were confident they had the numbers.

But something else happened in December. The House of Representatives impeached Chief Justice Renato Corona. And then the Christmas holidays came and went. When Congress resumed in January, the impeachment trial began.

Ideally, the number of lawmakers participating in the trial would not affect the quorum at the House. But the House has become, according to San Pascual, dysfunctional—lazy, distracted and afflicted with low morale. “There is just no leadership to conduct normal business.”

This side of House Speaker Belmonte came as an unpleasant surprise to San Pascual and his group, who have all worked alongside the former mayor in RH programs in his city before. The advocates knew, too, that only a push from the President can get Belmonte out of his lethargy and muster the leadership and will to put the matter, finally, to a vote.

The best way, they figured, was to seek an audience with Mr. Aquino and remind him of his commitment to reproductive health—or responsible parenthood, if he wants to call it that, although there is no difference at all.

San Pascual and some of the bill’s authors went to see the President on two occasions this year. One meeting on Valentine’s Day, when the team included Rep. Kaka Bag-ao (a member of the prosecution in the impeachment trial), was particularly disheartening. The President immediately quizzed Bag-ao on developments in the prosecution of Corona, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the team were eagerly awaiting to talk to him about the RH bill.

San Pascual was not surprised when Mr. Aquino, despite reiterating his commitment, said it would be better to finish the impeachment first because he did not want anything to get in the way of congressmen in their efforts to secure Corona’s conviction.

Apparently, Mr. Aquino just does not grasp the urgency of the bill—remember the 11 mothers dying daily of pregnancy-related complications, which could have been prevented had they been made aware of their options—if he could afford to move it back in favor of another congressional action.

And then, how can the bill be voted upon when the impeachment trial isn’t through yet, and when Congress won’t even be in session until early May? Of course, by that time, everybody will be rushing to attain the desired outcome. Things will likely stay this way until Congress adjourns—and does not meet again until the State of the Nation Address in late July.

In another occasion, San Pascual and company asked Mr. Aquino whether it was possible that the debates could be ended and the matter voted upon towards end-March. The President replied: “Masyadong malapit sa Lent. Baka ma-offend ang bishops (It’s too close to the Lenten season. The bishops might be offended).”

Certainly there is something wrong when the President cares about the bishops’ feelings more than he does about the plight of millions of poor women who must be informed of the ways they can plan their families—and take charge of their future.

These developments have caused San Pascual to now say: “I am no longer sure what is in the President’s mind.”

Then again, is anybody?

Continued next week