The past year has seen the Philippines come closer than at any point in its history to enshrining as state policy the aggressive promotion of the use of contraceptives (including those with abortifacient qualities) and the coercive silencing of pro-life criticisms and objections to anti-life government initiatives, in the form of a bill “On Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health, and Population and Development.”
The battle over the “RH bill” (as the proposed law is often called), between the Church on one side and the Philippine government and its allies—including some non-Catholic churches—on the other side, has been bitter, and has revealed the extent to which an increasing number of Filipinos have adopted the language, if not the mindset, of Western-style militant secularism.
The Reproductive Health Bill—now known as House Bill 4244—contains many dubious provisions. The proposed law’s “Guiding Principles” declare that “freedom of choice” is fully guaranteed by the state, and that the state “shall promote programs that enable couples, individuals, and women to have the number and spacing of children they desire with due consideration to the health of women and resources available to them,” thus implicitly endorsing and supporting sexual relationships outside of marriage. Going further, the bill also insists on “the absence of discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity” (Section 4) and clarifies (in Section 11) that family planning supplies will be made available to all “women of reproductive age.” Furthermore, the lengthy Section 16 specifies that both public and private schools (and many of the latter are Catholic) will have to use the same government-designed sex education curriculum, which will be taught to students from the ages of 10 to 16 and will include “values formation” and information on family-planning methods.
The bill evinces a muddled approach to the question of overpopulation, stating on one hand (in its “Guiding Principles”) that “human resource is among the principal asset [sic] of this country” and that “there shall be no demographic or population targets,” while on the other hand declaring that “the limited resources of the country cannot be suffered to be spread so thinly to service a burgeoning multitude,” and repeating (in Section 20) the “two-child ideal” found in earlier forms of the bill. (This time around, though, the debates regarding the RH bill have not focused on this “ideal.”)
The bill maintains that the Philippines’ anti-abortion legislation will remain intact. However, the same bill explicitly declares that “all women needing care for post-abortion complications shall be treated and counseled in a humane, non-judgmental, and compassionate manner” (“Guiding Principles”). At the very least, this represents a major shift from Philippine law’s traditional sternness toward abortion, an attitude that has always balanced post-abortive women’s needs for medical treatment with the need to give justice to slain babies.
Perhaps the most controversial aspects of the bill are its declarations that “modern family-planning methods” (that is, contraceptives) will be considered essential medicines for all hospitals and government health units (Section 10). The implementation of this policy will certainly result in a large portion of the Philippines’ perpetually strained budget being allocated for the purchase and distribution of contraceptives (particularly egregious given that many government health centers lack basic medicines for common illnesses, and many places in the country have no health centers at all). Finally, the law seeks to penalize with fines and prison time any health care service provider who refuses either to provide reproductive health services or to refer those seeking such services to another provider, and of “any person who maliciously engages in disinformation” about the RH bill (Sections 28 and 29).
As of this writing, no amendments have been introduced into the official text of the bill in order to modify any of the objectionable clauses mentioned above, even though some congressional advocates of the bill have publicly announced their intention to remove or modify at least some of the legislation’s most controversial parts.
Attempts to pass laws vigorously promoting contraception, often including dubious demographic goals, have taken place in the Philippines since the presidency of Joseph Estrada (1998-2001), but stalled during the long presidency of the ostensibly devout Catholic Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010), who was expected to veto such laws. As 2009 passed the halfway mark and the presidential elections of 2010 loomed on the horizon, no mainstream political body appeared ready to take on the Church by promising to push the RH bill, before or after the elections. Things were to change almost overnight, however—and in a way that was particularly unexpected for the Church.
PRO-LIFE QUEEN, PRO-CHOICE CROWN PRINCE
The death of former President Corazon “Cory” Aquino on August 1, 2009 was greeted by a level of national mourning that was as emotional as it was unexpected. While she had been fondly remembered for her role in restoring democracy in the Philippines, her six years in office (1986-1992) saw the country’s economy get battered by insurgency, natural catastrophes, and military uprisings. Nevertheless, when Mrs. Aquino died after a long and public battle with cancer, she was immediately elevated by popular acclaim to the pantheon of Philippine heroes. In tribute to her political stature and her public devotion to Catholicism, part of her wake was held in the main body of Manila Cathedral. Her nationally-televised funeral procession was joined by hundreds of thousands of people, and there were even calls from some sectors for her cause of canonization to be launched. The significance of this sudden revival of “Cory Magic” was not lost on the country’s politicians, and within days of Corazon Aquino’s death the entire landscape of Philippine politics was transformed.
Then-Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, only son of Corazon and Benigno Aquino, Jr., was seen as the natural heir to the position once occupied by his mother—the Philippine presidency. Noynoy Aquino, who was not even under serious consideration as a presidential candidate in the months before his mother’s death, soon found himself leading one of the main opposition parties as its standard-bearer for the Philippine presidential elections of May 2010, which he won convincingly. Many devout Catholics supported him mainly because he was his mother’s son, and as such was expected to listen to (and obey) the voice of the Catholic Church.
Noynoy Aquino’s presidential campaign successfully used nostalgia for the ideals of the Corazon Aquino-led and Church-inspired EDSA Revolution of 1986, along with continuing despair at the perceived corruption of subsequent administrations, to weld together a powerful coalition of devout Catholics, secular charity workers, media figures, and opinion-makers that was equally fervent in its devotion to Mr. Aquino and its attacks on his perceived opponents. Despite his co-authorship of one of the versions of the Reproductive Health Bill that had stalled under Macapagal-Arroyo, and of his various pronouncements in favor of the RH bill, many Catholics held out hope that, once elected to the presidency, he would come around to their cause simply because he was the son of Corazon Aquino. This prevented the question of the RH bill’s passage from becoming a decisive campaign issue, despite the attempts of some pro-life groups to divert support to other presidential candidates who seemed more willing to listen to the Church on the issue. As if to make way for the inevitable, the final months of the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency saw a dramatic shift in policy regarding sexual matters, with the Department of Health promoting contraceptives on a massive scale, even though the sitting president continued to show no support for the RH bill.
With the start of Noynoy Aquino’s presidency at the end of June 2010, the RH bill was immediately re-filed in almost-unchanged form by its re-elected congressional proponents. The first signs that the new president was not about to follow the Church on this issue came less than a month after he took office: the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) asked for a dialogue with the administration regarding the revived RH bill—and received no response. (A meeting was later set up between the CBCP and the presidential administration, but dialogue never really got off the ground.) Meanwhile, presidential allies in Congress, including House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, openly endorsed the RH bill, as did the president’s newly-appointed health secretary. The head of the CBCP, Bishop Nereo Odchimar, predicted as early as mid-July 2010 that the Church faced an uphill battle in opposing the RH bill.
Things came to a head on September 30, 2010, when the Philippine Daily Inquirer and other news sources ran articles claiming that Bishop Odchimar, in the course of an interview aired on the Catholic Church’s Radio Veritas, had stated that excommunication for the new president was a “proximate possibility” because of his stand over the RH bill. In fact, the bishop had said precisely the opposite, that excommunication was not a proximate possibility and that the Church was willing to dialogue with the president over the matter. (The bishop had reaffirmed Church discipline regarding abortion during the interview, and was responding to the question of whether the president would therefore be excommunicated for supporting the RH bill, which is seen by the pro-life movement as promoting abortifacient contraceptives.)
The damage had been done, though. Pundits, senators, and the presidential administration piled on the bishop and on the Church as a whole for supposedly threatening the president. To add to the heated atmosphere, a prominent “reproductive health” advocate by the name of Carlos Celdran dressed up as the 19th-century Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, then barged into an ecumenical service being held in Manila Cathedral on September 30. In the presence of Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales of Manila and the papal nuncio, Celdran shouted insults at the clergy and demanded that the Church stay out of politics, all the while brandishing a placard emblazoned with the word “DAMASO.” (This is a reference to Padre Damaso, a fictional abusive friar who features in one of Jose Rizal’s novels and whose name is popularly used in the Philippines as an insult against Catholic clergy.)
Carlos Celdran’s act was illegal, and he was briefly detained and then criminally charged, but he had successfully tapped into a current of anticlericalism and militant secularism that had long run beneath the pious externals of Filipino society, and which had rapidly grown in the last two decades. In the worst outburst of anticlericalism in the Philippines since at least the 1950s, newspaper columns and editorials, opinion-makers and TV shows heaped praise on Celdran for allegedly giving vent to national frustration against the Church over its stances on the RH bill and on population and sexuality issues. Facebook pages were set up to support Celdran and to enable Filipino “netizens” to say their piece against the Church. Philippine radio stations and websites were filled with hate-speech against the Church. A sample of the kind of “enlightened” commentary that filled the Philippine mainstream media in those days is the following passage by Raul Pangalangan, a former law school dean, published by the frequently anticlerical Philippine Daily Inquirer on October 8:
Human beings have advanced beyond the animal stage, yet the Church will retard that evolutionary advance and force us back to the caveman’s notion that mating is only for breeding. They would constrain even married couples from having sex for the old-fashioned reasons like romance and the joys of courtship and seduction.… The irony is that the clergy unwittingly abets animalistic attitudes by insisting that humans follow the animal practice that sex is only for producing offspring.
Radio and Internet postings and comments were frequently far cruder than this.
Buoyed by the seeming public support for the RH bill and President Aquino’s apparently invincible popularity—a popularity that prior Church support had helped to create—RH bill advocates went on the offensive. A huge push for the bill’s passage was led by groups such as Filipino Freethinkers (dominated by atheists, agnostics, and liberal Christians), the dissident “Catholics for RH,” and radical feminist organizations such as Likhaan, was abetted by professors, many students, and alumni not just of state universities, but also of Catholic universities such as the Jesuit-run Ateneo De Manila and the La Salle Brothers-run De La Salle University-Manila, and was supported by many Filipino celebrities (including Lea Salonga, once considered a devout Catholic) and by the bulk of the Manila commentariat (a majority of whom claim to be Catholic). The Church seemed bewildered and initially unable to answer the relentless barrage of pro-RH criticism and propaganda that dominated the airwaves. (To be fair, individuals from the above-mentioned Catholic universities, as well as some Jesuits and La Salle brothers, spoke out against the RH bill, and a few columnists in secular newspapers have defended the Church.) Even Bishop Odchimar’s repeated denials of the excommunication “threat” attributed to him were—and continue to be—ignored by the mainstream Filipino media. Non-Catholic and Evangelical churches have, in the main, openly supported the RH bill, with the singularly anti-Catholic Iglesia Ni Cristo even going so far as to condemn Natural Family Planning and to interpret Genesis 1:28 as a command to practice birth control.
However, Celdran’s provocative act also had the effect of awakening lay Catholics who had previously either underestimated the threat of the RH bill, or had paid little attention to the issues behind it. Within a week of the provocation, lay Catholics had formed a Facebook group called “I Oppose the RH Bill,” which as of this writing had garnered more than 23,000 “likes” and hundreds of active members. New lay groups such as “Filipinos for Life” have been formed to support and complement the existing pro-life apostolates of the Philippine Church, and it can be said that the Philippine pro-life movement has never been as strong as it is now.
THE DEBATE IN 2011
The debate over the RH bill showed no signs of stopping in 2011. To the frustration of the supporters of that bill, the Philippine Congress continued to delay its passing, and this frustration found expression in continued attacks on the Church in the media. This year there have been two nationally-televised debates between supporters and opponents of the RH bill (with a third scheduled to be televised), numerous Internet surveys (some won by pro-lifers, others won by pro-RH bill supporters), and a continuing opinion-page war in print and broadcast media as well as the Internet. Church officials and pro-life advocates have complained time and again about the slanted and biased coverage from all the major media networks and newspapers on matters relating to the bill, to little avail. Both sides have also been active in sending speakers to various schools and other institutions to discuss the pros and cons of the RH bill.
The Catholic Bishops of the Philippines issued a collective pastoral letter on the RH bill on January 30, 2011. Entitled “Choosing Life, Rejecting the RH Bill,” the letter laid down the position of the Church in positive language, as follows:
We are deeply concerned about the plight of the many poor, especially of suffering women, who are struggling for a better life and who must seek it outside of our country, or have recourse to a livelihood less than decent.
We are pro-life. We must defend human life from the moment of conception or fertilization up to its natural end.
We believe in the responsible and natural regulation of births through Natural Family Planning, for which character-building is necessary, which involves sacrifice, discipline, and respect for the dignity of the spouse.
We believe that we are only stewards of our own bodies. Responsibility over our own bodies must follow the will of God who speaks to us through conscience.
We hold that on the choices related to the RH bill, conscience must not only be informed but most of all rightly guided through the teachings of one’s faith.
We believe in the freedom of religion and the right of conscientious objection in matters that are contrary to one’s faith. The sanctions and penalties embodied in the proposed RH bill are one more reason for us to denounce it.
In addition to this pastoral letter, numerous individual bishops have issued their own pastoral letters against the RH bill. The bishops also called for an anti-RH bill rally in Manila on March 25, which was attended by tens of thousands of Catholics, Muslims, and Baptists. This rally was largely downplayed in the secular media, however.
Against the unyielding opposition of the bishops, President Aquino entrenched himself further in his support for the RH bill. To garner public sympathy, Aquino announced on Palm Sunday of this year that he was willing to be excommunicated rather than give up on the RH bill. In doing this he played on all the emotions that had been raised in the previous year’s controversy over the misreported excommunication “threat” from the head of the CBCP. This was followed by another heated controversy in May, when some pro-life leaders and bishops threatened to call for civil disobedience should the RH bill be passed into law. In response, Aquino threatened to have them charged with sedition if the call for civil disobedience actually materialized. The irony was not lost on some pro-lifers, who noted that Aquino’s own mother had launched a campaign of civil disobedience against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Even though most Filipino celebrities either remained neutral or supported the RH bill, perhaps the biggest celebrity of them all, world boxing champion and congressman Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, has repeatedly spoken out against the RH bill and in favor of the Church’s teaching against contraception.
Two more controversies hit the Church in July and August of 2011 and were used by advocates of the RH bill to push their agenda. The first was a short-lived but intense controversy over some alleged luxury vehicles that were donated to seven bishops by the previous administration. This was used by much of the media and by RH advocates to take the Church to task for its supposed wealth and corruption, until a Senate investigation found that the vehicles had been used by the bishops mainly for outreach programs to people in the hinterlands. The second controversy was over an artwork that defaced several images of Jesus Christ in an extremely obscene manner, and which was displayed in the state-funded Cultural Center of the Philippines. The Church denounced the display, which also garnered widespread public indignation. As in the earlier uproar over the donated vehicles, RH advocates used the controversy to attack the Church by alleging that “Catholic Talibans” were merely out to crush freedom of expression and to institute censorship.
As of this writing, the fate of the RH bill continues to hang in the balance. Conventional political wisdom holds that the RH bill is certain to pass the House of Representatives (the lower house of Congress), while the Senate vote is more difficult to predict, with its two most powerful leaders both rejecting the bill. (Some pro-life leaders contacted by this author have also contested the idea that the majority of the members of the House of Representatives will vote for the bill.) Should the RH bill pass the Senate as well, it is certain to receive presidential approval, setting the stage for a possible Supreme Court challenge and for vigorous protests on the part of the Church, although the head of the bishops’ conference has dismissed talk of civil disobedience as premature. Cardinal Ricardo Vidal (one of the Philippines’ three cardinals) and some bishops famously spoke in 2010 of their willingness to go to jail over the RH bill, and it remains to be seen how far President Aquino will go to confront the Church that had been his late mother’s ally and friend.