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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sex tempest in Quezon City

Opinion / At Large / Rina Jimenez - David / Philippine Daily Inquirer / 18 November 2007

MANILA, Philippines -- When Quezon City Councilor Joseph “Sep” Juico agreed to be the main sponsor of an ordinance “Establishing a Quezon City Population and Reproductive Health Management Policy,” little did he know that it would affect even his romantic life.

After weathering scathing criticism and name-calling from Catholic Church authorities and groups, Juico says he has become wary of even attending Mass in Quezon City. So intense has the campaign become that, he says half-seriously, he fears he may not even be allowed to wed in church. When he brought up the possibility with his girlfriend, Sep tried to make light of the matter by joking that “we can always go to a judge.” “That’s not funny,” she retorted.

“Nothing,” says the two-termer councilor wearily, “has ever prepared me for the scale of the attacks against me.” (His co-sponsors are Councilors Bernadette Herrera-Dy and Lala Sotto.)

After all, Juico hails from a family that can only be described as staunchly Catholic, if not loyally La Sallian. His father is Popoy Juico, a former agrarian reform secretary under President Cory Aquino; these days, Popoy serves as a juror in the Catholic Mass Media Awards while hosting a program in the El Shaddai radio station. His mother, Margie is a private secretary of President Aquino. But while his dad once confessed to Sep that “my heart is with you but my mind is not sure,” Margie has proven to be Sep’s chief cheerleader and defender, even writing a letter to Cubao Bishop Honesto Ongtioco expressing her hurt and heartache at the virulent attacks on her son.

Sep himself is La Sallian green to the core, having studied at La Salle from prep to college (“a rule in our family,” he says), graduating with a degree in human resources management. But even before his graduation, Sep was already deep in public service, having served as SK chairman for many years. From there, it was but a short leap to running for councilor, serving the first district of Quezon City. On the side, he also owns two boxing gyms.

* * *

THOUGH the proposed ordinance was formulated by the Anti-Poverty Task Force of Quezon City, composed of 12 city departments, Juico says he agreed to be its main sponsor because he has seen for himself that “we can no longer continue providing band-aid solutions to the problem of poverty, we need to get to the root of the problem.”

As part of his work as a councilor, Sep says he makes it a point to “immerse” himself in urban poor communities in his district, sometimes even spending a night with a family. “Nakakaawa talaga ang kondisyon nila” (Their condition is really pitiful), he recalls, describing a typical shanty crawling with vermin such that “they no longer wake up when huge rats scamper across their chests at night.”

“Everywhere I go, I see pregnant women,” he adds, “and usually they tell me it’s their fourth or fifth child.” What’s really depressing, he notes, is that “they are not happy about it, telling me they didn’t want to have these many children.”

In a privilege speech provoked by the Church’s campaign of vilification, Juico said of the issue: “(The parents) come to me for help because they cannot provide for their children and at the same time their family is just getting bigger .… In fact, the clamor is on a national level—nine out of 10 Filipinos consider family planning important and 89 percent believe that it is important for government to provide budgetary support for modern family planning methods and services …”

* * *

THE PROPOSED ordinance calls for the crafting of “an integrated and comprehensive policy on responsible parenthood, effective population management, and sustainable social development that values the dignity of every human person and affords full protection to people’s rights.”

A rather innocuous, if not motherhood, statement, you might say. And yet in response, Catholic leaders in Quezon City have launched a full-scale attack on the ordinance and its sponsors. A recent circular signed by Bishop Ongtioco accused the authors of “(using) the name of the poor … to push their deadly intent of promoting contraceptives and abortifacients.” The initiative, said the bishop, “kills the unborn children, cause(s) deadly cancers, destroys the Catholic educational formation of our youth.”

A leaflet, which bares the letterhead of the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish, accuses the proposed ordinance of “(bringing) sexual promiscuity to intermediate and high school students in their class lessons,” a familiar line in the anti-sex education arsenal of the Church, and of “killing unborn children and manipulating the poor.”

* * *

IN ADDITION, the bishop and some parish priests have called on some councilors to talk to them about killing the ordinance outright, even before Juico has had a chance to call a public hearing.

Referring to previous efforts of so-called pro-life groups to torpedo reproductive health legislation in the House of Representatives, a church official even warned Juico that “what we did in Congress is nothing compared to what we’ll do to you.” There is even talk that should priests in Quezon City spot Juico and the other proponents lined up for Communion, they will be refused Communion, something that has cut the Catholic Juicos to the quick.

“It’s been very, very, very bloody,” says Sep with some weariness. Expressing surprise at the virulent Church reaction, Juico says he never expected it, and that in all his years in politics, “this is the first serious test I have undergone, and I hope the last.”

But the good news is that the 30-year-old councilor is standing fast. “I’m not here to create enemies,” he declares, though he realizes that this time, he has found more than he bargained for.