Pia on RH Bill

Senator Pia S. Cayetano is looking forward to bringing the controversial Reproductive Health (RH) bill to the Senate floor for plenary debates possibly by December.

The chairperson of the Senate Committee on Health and Demography said she intends to conduct one or two more hearings in order to weigh all the arguments both for and against the chamber’s version, Senate Bill No.2378, authored by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

The committee conducted its initial hearing Monday on Santiago’s bill, together with Cayetano’s resolution (PSR 238) which inquired into the status of the country’s commitments to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Inviting 40 resource speakers from the opposing “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps, the four-hour hearing went without the expected heated exchanges as Cayetano confined the initial discussions to MDGs directly related to reproductive health, particularly the country’s targets to reduce maternal deaths (MDG No.4), infant mortality (MDG No.5), and cases of HIV/AIDS (MDG No.6) by the year 2015.

But there were occasional fireworks, such as when lawyer Dionisio Garciano of the “pro-life” Alliance for the Family Foundation claimed there was no such thing as an “unwanted pregnancy” among women, saying this was better referred to as “paranoid pregnancy.”

His remark drew sharp reactions from the “pro-choice” group predominantly made up of women, and even Cayetano herself, who reminded Garciano that he is in no position to speak for women whether their pregnancy is unwanted or not.

Another exchange broke out between Eric Manalang of Pro-Life Philippines Foundation and Benjamin De Leon of the Forum for Family Planning and Development. In building his case against artificial contraception, Manalang argued that natural family planning methods have a proven “99.9%” accuracy. But De Leon took the extreme position, claiming that said methods were only “0.1%” accurate compared to modern contraceptives.

In an interview with reporters after the hearing, Cayetano said the succeeding hearings will continue to break down discussions on the different components, including achieving the MDGs, people’s access to health care, family planning and government’s role, sex education, gender issues, and even economic aspects of reproductive health.

Cayetano is even open to holding a separate discussion on the constitutional issues that were raised against SBN 2378 by former senators Joey Lina and Francisco Tatad.

“I’d like to think of this as part of the ‘birth pains’ in coming up with an RH measure because many of the issues are admittedly very contentious and controversial. The intention is not to delay or prolong it, but to go through the normal course to get all the information we can gather from the various resource persons. This will prepare us ahead for the plenary debates,” she explained.

By dividing the discussion into several components, Cayetano noted that even those who consider themselves to be against the measure, like former senators Lina and Tatad, also acknowledged support for certain provisions, including those on improving maternal health and infant care.

“Their issue is really about the constitutionality of the State distributing contraceptives, which they claim goes against the constitutional right to life. But remember that the people also have the right to health care,” the lady senator stressed, in reference to the arguments presented by the two former senators.

“If the bill has ten components and we only disagree on one, then at least it is clear where our disagreement is, but we can continue to have an objective discussion on the other parts of the bill,” she added.

“As committee chair, I want to maintain an open mind. I want to absorb all arguments with the least possible bias. Even though I have already made clear my position that I support women having access to health services and health care, I am also willing to go into the depths of hearing their position and knowing what their legal basis is,” she concluded.

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