Reproductive Health Bill gives way to passage of budget

By CARMELA FONBUENA

MANILA, Philippines – That’s it for now.

House Bill 4244, or the Reproductive Health bill (RH bill), is shelved – albeit temporarily – to give way to the passage of the government’s P2.006-trillion budget for 2013. It won’t likely be tackled again until October, after the filing of certificates of candidacies (COCs) for the 2013 elections.

Legislative debates on the bill have been the most contentious in the present Congress. The measure — or at least its original version — mandates government to promote contraceptives and educate Filipinos on planning their families. Proponents said the country needs this to help stem problems related to the burgeoning population. Critics slam the bill for its supposed “anti-life” spirit.

“Today is effectively our last day to take up anything else,” House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II told reporters. “Next week we begin with the budget. Hopefully, according to Speaker [Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte Jr], the lull period can be considered so the supporters and critics of RH bill can talk about the amendments. Let’s see what’s going to happen after we retrun from the break. That will be in October.”

The House had planned to begin the crucial period of amendments on August 14, but it failed to proceed because of a series of parliamentary tactics employed by House members opposed to the measure. (The Senate finally started the period of amendments on Wednesday, September 5.)

Plenary deliberations on the budget will begin on Monday (September 10), and lawmakers hope to pass it on 2nd reading by September 20, or shortly before they take a break for the filing of COCs. They return on October 7.

Gonzales said there’s time to discuss the RH bill before the scheduled approval of the budget on 3rd and final reading by October 15.

Gonzales maintained there is still chance to pass the RH bill until December as long as House members can agree to the amendments.”We [House of Representatives] have a larger number of members compared to senate. But the moment we reach a consensus, it’s very easy,” he said.
Compromise bill
Not giving up, Belmonte is leading talks with supporters and critics of the RH bill to come up with a compromise bill. On Sunday, September 2, Belmonte had a meeting with Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and RH bill principal author Albay Rep Edcel Lagman to discuss possible ways to get the Catholic Church to support the measure.

Based on their initial talks, the RH bill proponents have agreed to a new version of the RH bill. It will become a “poverty measure.” Instead of a measure that “promotes” contraceptives nationwide, the bill will make “available” modern family planning methods only to the country’s “poorest of the poor.”

Malacañang is also willing to sit down with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to discuss acceptable amendments to the RH bill. An informal technical working group (TWG) composed of the Executive, Legislative and the CBCP is being formed to hopefully come up with a bill that is acceptable to all stakeholders.

On Wednesday, Belmonte held initial talks with House members supporting and opposing the RH bill. Among them were anti-RH solons Cagayan de Oro Rep Rufus Rodriguez, Cebu Rep Pablo Garcia, Parañaque Rep Roilo Golez, and Palawan Rep Victorino Socrates. Among the RH bill proponents present were Iloilo Rep Janette Garin, Cavite Rep Elpidio Barzaga, and Alagad party list Rep Rodante Marcoleta.

No to any distribution of contraceptives

According to the RH bill critics, the Wednesday meeting was not so successful.

While Rodriguez welcomed the creation of the informal TWG, he remained a hardliner against the distribution of contraceptives even only to the poorest of the poor.

“We hope the Catholic bishops, the Office of the President, and the legislatiure will be able to agree on a bill acceptable to all involved,” he said.

“There are some good provisions here but we still believe that there are provisions that have to be taken out like the promotion of modern family planning, meaning contraceptives, to be promoted by the State. We are against that because that’s against the doctrine of the Catholic Church,” Rodriguez added.

RH bill critic Cebu Rep Pablo Garcia also welcomed the dialogue. “Let’s see what they can present on the table,” he said. Garica earlier told Rappler he didn’t think the TWG will work.

Another RH bill critic, Minority Leader Quezon Rep Danilo Suarez, said Congress does not need to pass the RH bill to fund the purchase of contraceptives for the poorest of the poor. “Why don’t we just set aside money for the Conditional Cash Transfer Program to buy the contraceptives. We don’t need a new bill,” he said.

Gonzales said the House leadership will continue to do its best to talk to the stakeholders. “You have to explore all possible avenues. Let’s see what’ going to happen,” he said. In the next meeting, he said they will hope to sit down with a number of bishops to discuss the new set of amendments.

Religious debate

The Wednesday meeting at times turned into a religious debate, according to House members present in the meeting.
“You cannot avoid the House members from expressing their religious conviction. That is their belief. We cannot do anything about it,” said Gonzales.

“It became a religious war. They raised the position of the bishops and the tenet of the Catholic church so the discussion dragged on. Of course there are some other religious sector that’s represented in the meeting. It’s getting to be a religious debate,” said Suarez.

Rappler sources confirmed that it was Garcia and Marcoleta who debated on religion. Garcia is Catholic while Marcoleta is a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo, which favors the RH bill. – Rappler.com

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