By Marvin Sy and Paolo Romero (The Philippine Star) – Congress approved the Reproductive Health (RH) bill last night, ending months of debate that pitted politicians and civil society groups against the Roman Catholic Church.
After 18 months of debates, heated exchanges and a deluge of proposed amendments, the RH bill was finally approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives on third and final reading.
Senators voted 13-8 for the measure. At the House of Representatives, applause broke out in the gallery after the chamber approved the bill on third and final reading last night with a vote of 133-79 with seven abstentions.
The approval of House Bill 4244 was largely expected after President Aquino certified the measure as urgent and – according to critics – after he threatened to withhold pork barrel allocations and dangled projects to lawmakers. Malacañang has denied this.
At the House, 219 of the 284 members attended, or one less than the turnout on Dec. 12 when the RH bill was passed on second reading by a margin of only nine votes and three abstentions.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda expressed gratitude to lawmakers who authored or supported the measure.
“We thank our senators and congressmen who voted for access to information and care. We are particularly grateful to Speaker Sonny Belmonte, Majority Floor Leader Boyet Gonzales, Congressman Edcel Lagman who authored this bill and shepherded it through for more than a decade; Senator Pia Cayetano, who waged an equally difficult battle in the Senate; and every legislator who voted for this measure,” he said.
“They have made it even clearer: The people now have the government on their side as they raise their families in a manner that is just and empowered,” Lacierda said in a statement.
It took 13 years before the controversial bill was finally taken up on third and final reading The RH bill is now headed for the bicameral conference committee hearings for the reconciliation of the conflicting provisions between the Senate and House versions.
Two senators, Manuel Lapid and Sergio Osmeña III, were not present during the voting on the bill.
The opponents of the bill did everything to convince their colleagues to vote against the measure out of religious conviction, moral issues and other concerns.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III took up the cudgels for the anti-RH lawmakers when they took the floor during the period of interpellation to introduce numerous amendments.
Enrile lost the vote on several of his proposed amendments, many of which would have changed the complexion of the RH bill.
A total of 33 amendments were introduced by Sotto yesterday, 27 of which were accepted by the measure’s sponsor, Sen. Pia Cayetano, paving the way for the approval of the bill on second reading yesterday.
Sotto objected to the approval on second reading, which led to another voting, in which he lost 8 to 13.
Since the RH bill was certified as urgent by the President, the bill was immediately taken up for third and final reading.
Affirmation of women’s rights
In voting yes for the RH Bill, Sen. Edgardo Angara said the measure would be an affirmation of basic human rights, especially of women.
“We have to respond to challenges that threaten our country. We must not discriminate against women. We must do everything to prevent maternal deaths,” Angara said.
Sen. Joker Arroyo voted yes “conditionally,” saying he believed that the financial requirements for the implementation of the RH law should be clearly stated.
“Overlooked in all this acrimony is that public funds would be spent to implement this measure, thus making it everybody’s profound concern and not just the pharmaceutical companies. I hope they will be respected in the bicameral conference committee rather than dismissed out of hand for I shall change my vote I cast today should that happen,” Arroyo said.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, the principal author and co-sponsor of the bill, downplayed the influence of the Catholic Church and its stand against the bill.
“There is no force more powerful than an idea whose time has come and that idea today is the RH bill,” Santiago said.
Cayetano was emotional when she cast her affirmative vote and acknowledged supporters of the bill who showed up at the Senate yesterday.
She lamented that a lot of misinformation emerged during the course of the debates, which were disproved.
Sen. Francis Escudero noted that the bill has brought about too much division in the Senate and the country.
He said that the time has come for healing to take place now that the controversial bill has been approved.
Sen. Teofisto Guingona III said that the RH bill gives couples the right to choose what is best for their families.
“It is only right for the state to ensure they are given access (to family planning methods),” he said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who filed his own version of the RH bill, expressed his admiration for Enrile and Sotto, who he said had fought a good fight against the RH bill.
Sen. Loren Legarda said that the RH bill would not only reduce maternal deaths but also improve the lives of people.
“The RH debate is not about a house divided. It is about a country that struggles to see the truth,” Legarda said.
Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in voting yes, admitted that the RH bill was probably the one measure that had forced him to make a close examination of his conscience.
Liberal Party (LP) stalwarts Franklin Drilon and Francis Pangilinan both voted in favor of the bill but opted to submit their written explanations instead of reading them during yesterday’s plenary session.
Sen. Ralph Recto, also a member of the LP, voted yes “conditionally” just like Arroyo, but in his case, he said he wanted the Senate panel in the bicameral conference committee to defend the amendments introduced by the Senate in the RH bill.
Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano also voted in favor.
Senate President Pro-Tempore Jinggoy Estrada said that the RH bill has stood out as one of the most divisive measures ever taken up by Congress.
Estrada said that his vote against the measure is his own personal stand and is even against the stand of his parents, the former President Joseph Estrada and former senator Loi Estrada.
“What is not acceptable is that it seems we are encouraging making contraceptives more acceptable. I don’t support the continued decline in morality in our country,” Estrada said.
Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III said that he voted “no” based on his conscience.
“Spending huge amounts of money on condoms is not the solution,” Pimentel said.
Sen. Ramon Revilla Jr. said that his vote against the RH bill was a vote on behalf of every unborn child.
Revilla said that he and his wife, Cavite Rep. Lani Revilla, lost a child due to the use of contraceptives and that based on their experience, he cannot vote in favor of the bill.
Sotto said that he would be watching closely the implementation of the RH bill, which he said is doomed to fail.
“I ask God the Father to forgive us for we do not know what we are doing,” Sotto said.
Senators Manuel Villar Jr., Antonio Trillanes IV and Gregorio Honasan also voted against the bill.
Enrile noted that he studied the bill very carefully and examined his conscience before making a decision on the measure.
“The future is unknown, uncertain and unpredictable and so in the course of our debates here and in the course of my studies on this bill, I reflected on its breadth and impact on our society, on me as a person, on me as a man of faith, I hope I am, and I came to one conclusion, there is no certitude,” Enrile said.
“I, for one, am in no position to say where the truth lies in this measure. I have to be guided in things that guided me all these years – faith, conscience and notion of what is for the national good,” he added.
According to Sotto, he received information that Lapid was approached by a number of people, including Sen. Pia Cayetano, to skip yesterday’s session, knowing very well that he would cast a negative vote on the bill.
Deputy Speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella said that while he was not allowed to vote being the presiding officer, he was consistently against the bill.
“Who could successfully argue against the bill’s hallmark of informed choice where there is neither compulsion nor reward for a couple’s or woman’s decision?” Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, principal author of the measure, said shortly before the voting commenced.
“Who could refute the valid observation that a runaway population growth rate aggravates the problems besetting healthcare, education, food security, employment, mass housing and the environment?” he said.
There was also less tension on the floor during the voting, with both sides trying to outdo each other in emphasizing their votes. Marikina City Rep. Romero Quimbo registered his vote while attached to an IV and accompanied by doctors as he was still recovering from dengue.
ANAD party-list Rep. Pastor Alcover said “no, no and no” but Fuentebella said: “That counts only as one.”
Rep. Emerenciana de Jesus and her colleagues in the Gabriela party-list voted “yes with reservations.”
“For Gabriela Women’s Party, there is no room for a population control agenda in the RH bill because such an agenda is anti-women and anti-poor. It wrongly perpetuates the notion that blames a burgeoning population, and specifically women’s wombs, for the rising poverty in the country. Our people are suffering from poverty, they are not the ones causing it,” Ilagan said.
“To address poverty is to address inequity and address landlessness, lack of industries, low wages, high prices, and poor and inaccessible social services. Our population is our nation’s resource. Stop blaming the poor and the women,” she said.
Ang Galing Pinoy party-list Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo, who voted “no,” read a statement of his detained mother, former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
He said Arroyo managed to reduce population growth for the first time since 1903 without an RH law.
“She (Arroyo) focused on responsible parenthood, respect for life, birth spacing, and informed choice. She emphasized informing about modern natural family planning to correct the bias in previous years which taught only artificial birth control, and to conform to the culture and values of a predominantly Catholic population,” he said.
As before, many anti-RH bill lawmakers wore red while those backing the measure had purple clothes on.
Only two Catholic bishops were present in the gallery and fewer nuns. Eve Ensler, award-winning playwright of “The Vagina Monologues” was present in the gallery to show her support for the measure.
The first round of voting already had the pro-RH bill having the upper hand. Deputy Speaker and Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia, who voted against the measure, asked if there would be a third round of voting as many House members, including his son, were stuck in traffic on the way to the chamber.
An administration lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said most of those who voted against the bill in the previous session were called up by Malacañang officials and even Aquino himself.
“I was asked if we could meet but I declined but my principles are really non-negotiable,” the lawmaker said.
“I appeal to our Catholic bishops not to malign those who voted for the RH bill but not also to forget those who voted no,” the lawmaker added.
Antipolo Bishop Gabriel Reyes, who attended the proceedings, told reporters that “pressure, projects and political favors” obviously had an effect on many anti-RH congressmen, some of whom decided not to show up or abstained.
“It’s (approval) a mistake,” Reyes said. “Promising projects or favors or exerting pressure is corruption because it makes lawmakers not to stand by for his or her principles.”
“This is not only bad for Catholics, this bill is bad for families, women and children,” he said.
He said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines might issue a pastoral statement on the matter.
At least 14 House members who were absent or failed to vote last week on the RH bill showed up yesterday to cast their votes.
Representatives Ben Evardone of Eastern Samar, Reynaldo Umali of Mindoro Oriental, Maria Carmen Apsay of Compostela Valley, Wilfrido Enverga of Quezon, Rosenda Ann Ocampo of Manila, Rodante Marcoleta of Alagad, Mark Cagas of Davao del Sur, Giorgidi Aggabao of Isabela, and Mark Sambar of Puwersa ng Bayaning Atleta voted for the bill.
On the other hand, Ryan Singson of Ilocos Sur, Nasser Pangandaman of AA-Kasosyo, Ramon Durano VI of Cebu, Diosdado Arroyo of Camarines Sur, and Rachel Arenas of Pangasinan joined those opposed to the measure.
Evardone, Umali, Enverga, and Ocampo belong to the ruling Liberal Party, while Cagas and Aggabao are members of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC).
Deputy Speaker Erin Tañada, who presided over last week’s second-reading proceedings and was not able to participate in the voting, cast a Yes vote yesterday.
Deputy Speaker Arnulfo Fuentebella took over the presiding officer’s job and did not participate in the third-reading vote. He cast a No vote last week.
Conspicuously absent was Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao, who voted against the bill last week. Like Pacquiao, many of the 104 members who opposed the bill during the second-reading proceedings last week did not show up yesterday. – With Aurea Calica
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