Under the Influence of the Bishops: The Battle over Family Planning in the Philippines
David, Rina Jimenez, Conscience
IT IS A MEASURE THAT HAS BEEN, in one form or another, on the legislative agenda since the 1980s, but has never gone further than committee level. The measure went farthest and was being deliberated on the floor of the House early this year, just before Congress went into recess in preparation for the May elections. House Bill 5043 had hurdled the committee deliberations and was in the period of interpellation (when a bill's sponsor takes questions from colleagues) but had been stalled for months by a small band of interrogators who, failing to shake the sponsors, resorted to questioning the quorum and demanding a roll call. At this point, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (c B C P) even issued a call for members of Congress not to report for sessions when the "RH Bill" was tabled.
"It [the quorum issue] was a convenient tool" to delay the bill's passage, sighs Ramon San Pascual, executive director of the Philippine Legislators' Committee for Population and Development, founded in the 1980s to promote the study of population and development issues among members of both the House and Senate. Indeed, says Rep. Edcel Lagman, the bill's principal author, the use of a quorum "was a lesson for us," because, he says, if only all of the bill's co-authors showed up at sessions, there would indeed have been a quorum.
But quorum or no quorum, it seems the RH Bill was doomed from the start. In hindsight, it appears that the leadership of the House, in the person of former Speaker Prospero Nograles, was ambivalent at best about supporting the passage of the bill. Part of that ambivalence must be credited to Nograles's deference to the former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had already declared it state policy to promote only "natural" family planning, a position many believed was a concession to the bishops, on whose political support she relied.
In a conversation with Speaker Nograles, recalls Lagman, "he told me that he was for the bill, but he admitted that if he got a call from Malacanang [the president's official residence] to slow down, he would not be able to resist."
Before then, irked by the opponents' delaying tactics, Lagman managed to wrangle from Nograles an agreement to hold a panel debate, forming two panels of five members each to discuss possible amendments to the bill. This would have negated the need for any more fruitless and contentious floor debates. "That never happened," he says ruefully.
San Pascual is more blunt. The Speaker, he says, "made it appear as if he were on our side, when all the while he was really on the other side." (During his unsuccessful run this year for mayor of his native Davao City, Nograles declared his intention to withdraw the city's Women's Health Code and received an award from Human Life International, one of the more strident opponents of sexual and reproductive rights worldwide.)
In October last year, just as the panel debate was being readied, sources from within Malacanang confirmed that two bishops, representing the bishops Commission on Family Life, called on the president. Shortly after, an assistant of the president called up Speaker Nograles asking him to "slow down" on the RH Bill. "After that, they were just dribbling the ball and going through the motions," says Rep. Janette Garin of the province of Iloilo, a bill co-sponsor who was outspoken in her support for it.
The "Golden Age" of reproductive health policy in the Philippines, says Dr. Junice Demeterio Melgar, executive director of women's NGO Likhaan, was during a five-year period, from 1995 to 2000, that straddled the administrations of former Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Estrada.
Ramos, a Protestant, had appointed as Health Secretary Dr. Juan Flavier, who brought a folksy winning charm to his advocacy for family planning and reproductive health. During the midterm elections of 1995, Flavier ran for the Senate and his deputy Dr. …