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Friday, July 25, 2008

Separating Church and State, fact from fiction

Passion For Reason
Separating Church and State, fact from fiction

By Raul Pangalangan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 01:39:00 07/25/200

MANILA, Philippines—The Philippine Daily Inquirer front page on Tuesday featured a photo of a mother and three small children silhouetted against the light, living in a hammock under a bridge, with the fetid tide just two feet below them. I noticed that the children, presumably all hers, were spaced barely a year or two apart, with a newborn cradled in her arms and two older children, neither of whom could have been over five years old. On that same day, the latest Social Weather Stations survey reported that 14.5 million Filipinos experienced “involuntary hunger” between April and June 2008, a record high equivalent to almost three million households.

At the same time, House Speaker Prospero Nograles—proclaiming, “I am a devout Catholic”—called for a “ceasefire” in the all-out assault by the Catholic Church against the reproductive health and population control bills pending in Congress.

The good bishops talk about the sanctity and dignity of life. Living with three children under a bridge: Where is the dignity? Where is the sanctity? Do we respect life by making it difficult for that woman to plan for her family? So that her sleeping two-year-old won’t accidentally fall into the foul stream and die, if not from drowning, from swallowing poisoned water? Do we respect their dignity if we condemn them to an earthly hell where they inhale putrid air with each breath day and night?

This is not a debate about the nuances of Catholic theology. This is simply about the most dearly held norms in our Constitution, the basic distinction between truth and falsity, and plain common sense.

Hardline clergy have labeled as “evil” the sponsors of the Reproductive Health Care bills pending before Congress, and have called them “abortionists.” That is a lie.

I have read the various bills authored by Senators Rodolfo Biazon and Panfilo Lacson and Representatives Edcel Lagman and Janette Garin. I can categorically say that there is not a single mention in any bill of legalizing abortion. In contrast, a computer search shows that the bills mention the word “abortion” solely in order to reiterate that “abortion shall remain to be penalized under the Revised Penal Code and relevant jurisprudence” and to provide programs to teach people about the “proscription and hazards of abortion.”

In fact, each time they define “family planning” (so that couples may “decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children”), they always affirm that “abortion is not included as a family planning method” and that the methods “exclud[e] abortion, which is a crime.” In case the bishops still have any doubts, the authors go out of their way and affirm that “abortion remains a crime and is punishable.”

Indeed, when the bills refer to family planning programs, they actually aim “to help women avoid abortion [by] preventing unintended pregnancies and ensuring access to quality family planning methods.” They cite convincing evidence that access to contraceptives is the best way to reduce abortions.

One-third of all pregnancies in the Philippines have ended up in abortions and, in 2000 alone, they recorded 473,400 cases of induced abortions, more than 90 percent of them by married women. A survey by the poll group Social Weather Stations shows that 97 percent of Filipinos want to be able to control their fertility and plan their families—and almost 90 percent of the respondents are Catholic. One woman out of six wants family planning but can’t practice it for lack of access to family planning health services. Almost 60 percent of contraceptive users depend on government for their supply of contraceptives. If the bishops truly oppose abortion, why exclude contraceptives from the government’s family planning services when we all know that to do so will simply lead to more abortions?

The only way for the bishops to sustain their argument is to say that contraception and abortion are one and the same thing. But that is a matter internal to Church doctrine. It is binding on true believers. It cannot command nonbelievers. Not all Filipinos are Catholic, and not all Filipino Catholics subscribe to the same level of dogmatism as the local bishops’.

Our own Constitution recognizes the “right of spouses to found a family in accordance with their religious convictions.” In a famous US case cited by the Philippine Supreme Court, it was said: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion ….”

Which family planning method to use is for the spouses alone—not for any government—to decide in their behalf. To confine family planning to the clergy’s approved methods is to impede that free choice.

What galls me about the raging debate is the in-your-face brashness of the Catholic clergy. Having twisted the facts, they now intimidate our secular officials to toe dogma, threatening to withhold from them the sacraments. I wonder: Do they still give communion to that bishop in Antipolo City who was found a few years back to be keeping a mistress? To the infamous plunderers in government? To all those sexual offenders referred to by no less than Pope Benedict XVI last week? The bishops must be consistent in telling the truth and in punishing sinners before they can pontificate.

Otherwise, what they show is not theological devotion but secular arrogance, the bluster of power, cocky in the knowledge that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, bereft of legitimacy and opportunistic to the core, will yield to expediency, kiss the hand that anoints, and lend the sword of an unworthy Caesar to carry out a strained—and self-defeating—reading of scripture.

There are those who believe without questioning, but there are those who question because they truly believe.

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