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Thursday, July 31, 2008

It’s not over for population bills in House

By Christian V. Esguerra, TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:41:00 07/30/2008

MANILA, Philippines—Now that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has reiterated her preference for natural family planning in her State of the Nation Address (SONA), is it finally over for the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill at the House of Representatives?

No way, the leading proponents of the measure, mostly administration lawmakers, said Tuesday.

“It was not a statement of doom [but] only a statement of her preference,” said Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, principal author of the bill that seeks to provide couples a choice of natural and artificial methods of contraception.

Part of the President’s remarks in her report to the nation on Monday was this: “Informed choice should mean letting more couples, who are mostly Catholics, know about natural family planning.”

She also said natural family planning was a key factor in the low population growth rate.

Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin expressed “respect” for Ms Arroyo’s position but said she would still push for the passage of the bill set to be calendared for second reading by the House committee on rules.

“That was her personal opinion,” Garin said. “But to me, informed choice means you present everything, both artificial and natural methods, and let couples decide.”

Battle in rules panel

Senior Deputy Minority Floor Leader Roilo Golez, who is on the side of those opposed to the measure, including the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said its fate depended on Speaker Prospero Nograles and Majority Leader Arthur Defensor.

“The battle will be in the rules committee, which decides when a bill is calendared for plenary debate,” Golez said.

In a press conference Tuesday, Nograles invited congressmen to submit in writing their proposed amendments to the RH bill.

“It will not be as bloody as you think,” he told reporters, referring to deliberations on the measure. “We will collate all [the proposed amendments] and try to find out what we can accept and cannot accept … We will get a consensus.”

An issue that does not sit well with the opposing camp is the use of taxpayers’ money to purchase contraceptives such as pills, injectibles and intrauterine devices.

Lagman said this had to be so because the measure was aimed at providing not only “information” on but also “access” to all family planning methods.

“Once couples have information and decide on using artificial methods, access should be available,” he said.

Categorical stance urged

Despite Ms Arroyo’s plug for natural family planning in her SONA, CBCP officials were less than enthused.

“[Her] statement heavily favors the Church’s program on natural family planning, which is a very good start. But a more categorical [stance] is expected by the bishops—for her not to promote the [RH] bill which, [as] a whole, is a failure in rich and developed countries,” said Archbishop Paciano Aniceto of San Fernando, Pampanga, who chairs the CBCP’s Commission on Family and Life.

“It seemed she was more focused on accomplishments and projects for the improvement of the economy,” the archbishop said, adding:

“She said that by promoting natural planning and female education, the population has been curbed during her administration. This is the same conclusion of the New York Council on Planned Parenthood.”

According to Aniceto, the President should reject an RH program that promotes the use of artificial contraception because such a program has “wreaked havoc on the morality of families and youth in the West.”

Reiterating the CBCP stand, Aniceto urged the Arroyo administration to “translate population into human capital by providing more funds for programs on education, infrastructure and subsidy to farmers in all aspects of their agricultural needs.”

He also called for more support for poor overseas Filipino workers who, he said, “are the ones actually supporting the economy, not the rich.”

“In other words, her government must start an alternative development program that is in consonance with the dignity and moral values of the Filipino,” he said.

‘Good for her’

Archbishop Jesus Dosado of Ozamiz City reacted to Ms Arroyo’s statement of support for natural family planning with a tepid “Good for her.”

“What she should do should be according to the natural law,” Dosado said.

Archbishop Ramon Arguelles of Lipa City said Ms Arroyo should show her sincerity by explicitly opposing the Philippine Legislators Council for Population and Development, the umbrella group of lawmakers and private organizations lobbying for a national RH policy.

“Reproductive health bills really mean abortion,” Arguelles told the Church-run Radio Veritas.

Dosado, who had stirred controversy with a pastoral letter saying “pro-abortion” politicians would be denied holy communion, said those backing the RH bill in the House could suffer the same fate.

“I extend it to people legislatively for reproductive health,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the phone.

“The bill hides many things. It doesn’t mandate abortion but there are things that are hidden in it that would lead eventually to abortion,” he said.

Dosado expressed concern over such provisions as mandatory sex education, widespread distribution of contraceptives, and the classification of contraceptives as essential medicines.

These and other provisions cloak the bill’s “anti-life” intentions, Dosado said.

“We have to be unambiguous with our wording. That is what we object [to in] the bill,” he said.

Not gov’t policy

In another phone interview, former Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez said Ms Arroyo’s pitch for natural family planning should not dissuade lawmakers from seeing the RH bill through.

“It’s a personal commitment that she’s not imposing on the rest of the government,” Romualdez said, adding that proof of this was Social Welfare Secretary Esperanza Cabral’s declaration that she was holding to her stand that couples should be given a choice between natural and artificial contraception.

Said Cabral over dzMM: “Whatever was my personal opinion before the SONA, that remains until today.”

But she said she would continue to promote government programs on responsible parenthood pending the approval of RH legislation by the House and the Senate.

“The existing directives like promoting responsible parenthood and promoting natural family planning, we will follow. What we just want is that apart from the natural family planning, we should have promotion and information on other methods,” Cabral said.

These are “not mutually exclusive,” she said.

Romualdez said that in his opinion, “it’s OK for the President to hold an extreme belief as long as she does not impose it on others.”

He said lawmakers should view Ms Arroyo’s reiteration of her position as a message: “She knows there’s a need to manage the population. So lawmakers should look at the bill as a population management method that we need to pass. Rather than be discouraged, they should be encouraged [to pass it].”

Romualdez held the health portfolio during the abbreviated term of President Joseph Estrada. He drew up a program to curb population, including distribution of contraceptives to the poor, but it had no chance to take off with Estrada’s unseating in January 2001. With reports from Tonette Orejas in Pampanga; Kristine L. Alave in Manila