By Gel Santos Relos
Doesn't “freedom of choice” require that everybody -- rich or poor, Catholic or not, in urban and rural areas -- be given all the education and tools they need, as they make informed decisions in their own reproductive health issues and responsible parenthood -- guided by their own moral or spiritual compass?
Sen. Vicente Sotto III has made it his mission to block the passage of the controversial House Bill No. 4244 -- the Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act, more popularly known as the RH Bill. His reasons are personal.
He blames the side effects of contraceptive pills for the death of his son who died five months after he was born in 1975, an assertion questioned by many pro-RH groups, including former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral and Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin -- who challenged Sotto to make public his son's death certificate to prove that contraceptives actually caused his son's death.
"Magiging misyon ko ito pala para ipaglaban ko ang karapatan na mabuhay ang maraming inosenteng bata na kikitilin ang buhay ng bill na ito," Sotto said in his tearful "turno on en contra" speech against the RH Bill in the Senate.
The bill has been stalled in Congress for 14 years due to staunch opposition from the Catholic Church and pro-life advocates. The House of Representatives has finally voted to end debates and move the bill forward for second reading approval in the House. Sotto refuses to surrender.
Taking his personal battle further, Sotto appeared for an interview on ABS-CBN News Channel (ANC), where he continued to raise his arguments against the passage of the bill.
Sotto said he agrees with the RH Bill provisions on family and maternal health."What I don't agree with is using people's [tax] money for contraceptives" he told Karen Davila on the program “Headstart.”
He also said he opposes the declaration of contraceptives and condoms as essential medicines, as stipulated in the RH Bill, arguing that they do not cure anything. He warns condoms aren't foolproof against the Human Immuno Virus (HIV), and that artificial contraceptives have a 8-10% failure rate.
Senator Sotto also challenged the truth behind RH advocates’ declaration that in the Philippines, 11-15 mothers die every day because of pregnancy and childbirth. “We need to see actual, empirical data on maternal health,” Sotto asserted. He accused Department of Health officials of using these arguments to make up for their inadequacy and failure to do their job.
The issue of whether the Philippines really needs population control was also raised by the senator. Sotto said population growth is also needed for economic development. He cited the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) statement that says “ideal growth population rate is 2.1% per year.” Sotto said the Philippines is now at only 1.9%, implying there is no need to curtail population growth with the use of contraceptives, despite the Philippines' dense population.
But what really perplexed me was this point that Senator Sotto articulated in the interview -- that the RH Bill “will take away freedom of choice from couples”-- a concern echoed by many kababayans who fear that the passage of the RH Bill will mandate all Filipinos to use artificial contraceptives against their will and conscience.
The fact is, when the RH Bill is enacted into law, the Department of Health will then be directed to make “medically safe, legal, accessible, affordable and effective reproductive health care services nationwide.” It will also require “age-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education” -- from the fifth grade through high school.
The RH Bill is not about pushing everybody to use artificial contraceptives. It is about educating the Filipinos about their reproductive health, especially as it relates to responsible parenthood. It is about helping women who need preventive care and treatment-- gain access to dependable health care professionals.
It is about informing people about all their options -- if and when they decide for themselves that it is important for them to plan the size of their family and when to have children -- depending on their physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual readiness to assume the great responsibility of parenthood.
It is about making people know about the pros and cons of each option, and what will work best for every individual given her medical and health issues. It includes information about the use of natural family planning methods, like abstinence and calendar method, as options. No coercing people to take the pills or use the condom. No mandating couples on the number of children to have. No abortion as a tool for family planning.
While contraceptives have already been available for purchase in the Philippines, only those who can afford them have access. The blockage of the passage of the bill, will therefore deny the “freedom of choice” for people who cannot afford to pay for, or have no access to contraceptives and reproductive health care -- whether for medical or birth control purposes. Is “freedom of choice” just a luxury meant only for those who can afford it?
On a spiritual and religious level, it is important to point out that the RH Bill does NOT force people to use artificial contraceptives. There is nothing in the bill that requires Catholics to go against the Catholics Church's position against the use of any birth control pills, morning-after pill, condoms, IUD, sterilization, withdrawal method, etc. Each Catholic CAN still choose abstinence or the calendar method, or no birth control method at all -- depending on the dictates of his/her conscience.
Moreover, as Senator Pia Cayetano argued, not all Filipinos are Catholic. Doesn't making a public policy based on Catholic dogma alone, deny the rights and welfare of other Filipinos of different faith.
Doesn't “freedom of choice” also require that everybody -- rich or poor, Catholic or not, in urban and rural areas --be given all the tools they they need to make an informed decision in their own reproductive health issues and responsible parenthood, guided by their own moral or spiritual compass? This is what the RH Bill hopes to achieve.
It is ironic that the blogger that Senator Sotto was reported to have plagiarized in his Senate speech, reacted and stated her position, in favor of freedom of choice for Filipino women, when it came to matters of reproductive health.
Sarah Pope wrote:
“Women of the Philippines: I am terribly sorry my blog was used and twisted against you. You deserve the choice to use The Pill if you want or need to based on your personal circumstances. While I want you to know that this choice has health consequences as does the decision to use any pharmaceutical drug, I in no way, would ever condone taking this choice away from you...”