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Birth pains of the Philippine RH law
Publication Date : 04-01-2013
It was not unexpected. On the first working day of the year, the family of a prominent opponent of the Philippines' Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 petitioned the Supreme Court to declare the controversial new measure unconstitutional. The petition, unfortunately, is sincere nonsense.
Lawyers James and Lovely-Ann Imbong alleged that RA 10354 violated the Constitution because it “introduces policies that negate and frustrate the foundational ideals and aspirations of the sovereign Filipino” and because it “cannot be implemented without exceeding the boundaries of government action….”
The Imbongs’ suit was summed up more simply, if somewhat melodramatically, by their “collaborating counsel,” James’ mother Jo Aurea Imbong. “The state has no business entering the bedroom,” the older Imbong, a lawyer who works with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, told Agence France-Presse.
At the level of mere sloganeering, Imbong’s fatwa is only as strong, or as weak, as the inevitable retort: But the Church has no business in the bedroom either!
In truth, however, both state and religion are of necessity found in the modern-day bedroom; the laws against sexual abuse or violence against women, for instance, obtain in the bedroom just as much as freedom of conscience and worship. To argue that one or the other is off-limits is to display an impoverished view of what is truly at stake.
The Imbongs’ petition—surely the first of many that will be filed—is based on a close but skewed reading of the RH law.
We will not gainsay their sincerity; however, we will take their arguments (we will focus on three) as characteristic of the anti-RH opposition.
First, we note with dismay the petition’s blatant attempt to engage in class-baiting: “[S]ocial service, according to the Act, is about bringing the poor closer to having fewer children, because, after all, who else are at a social disadvantage in bringing forth children whom they can raise in a ‘truly humane way?’ The upper class? The middle class?The lower middle class? Or the poor?”
The Imbongs, in the act of standing up for the poor, make the mistake of condescending to them instead; they understand the law’s emphasis on raising children in a “truly humane way” in narrowly economic terms. But the controversial last paragraph in the law’s second section applies just as much to, say, “upper class” couples who are psychologically or emotionally incapable of discharging the duties of responsible parenthood. Uncharitably, the petitioners understand the provision only as applying to the poor.
Second, we note with increasing frustration the petition’s appeal (made with great certitude) to a still-uncertain future. The new law, the Imbongs said, will lead to “an inexorable population decline” that would “effectively erase the modest but promising economic gains proudly claimed by the country’s economic leaders and noticed by the world”.
This kind of statistical speculation is out of place in a legal brief; it is related to the petitioners’ doomsday argument that the law effectively disempowers the poor as “direct agents of change and direct beneficiaries of social services and economic opportunity”—when in fact the policy is clear about situating reproductive health in the context of “sustainable human development”, a term defined in the law itself.
Third, we note with great disdain the petition’s sweeping claim that the new law also “mocks the nation’s Filipino culture—noble and lofty in its values and holdings on life, motherhood and family”. This reading is possible only if every single reference in the law to these same values and holdings are expunged or ignored. Here, for example, is one provision (a guiding principle for implementation, no less) which the suit slights: “The State shall respect individuals’ preferences and choice of family planning methods that are in accordance with their religious convictions and cultural beliefs, taking into consideration the State’s obligations under various human rights instruments.”
In what respect can this be read as mocking the “nation’s Filipino culture”?
It is best to understand the Imbongs’ petition as part of the new law’s birth pains; it is what is keeping the law from being truly, fully, born.