THANKS TO some priests and bishops of the Catholic Church, and with considerable help from the media, the debate on the consolidated Reproductive Health bill (House Bill 4244) pending in the House of Representatives is turning into a murky exercise that’s spreading more disinformation than enlightenment.

The episode in which perennial and number one House absentee Manny Pacquiao weighed in on the issue by announcing his opposition to the anti-RH bill demonstrated how far some bishops will go to stop the bill. The anti-RH bishops’ cynical manipulation of the boxer put their opposition on the front pages and the news programs, furthering their advocacy despite Pacquiao’s unfamiliarity with the issues and his embarrassing trouncing during the House debates. Although coached by the bishops, Pacquiao not only misquoted the Biblical injunction to “Be fruitful and multiply,” he also displayed an appalling though unsurprising ignorance of the bill’s intent and provisions unworthy of a member of the House of Representatives.

Not that some of his colleagues in that less than August body, including those who regularly attend the sessions and who’re not as accomplished as Pacquiao, have not been similarly ignorant. Some have argued that, the country being mostly Catholic, it should heed what Catholics want, which assumes that all Catholics agree with the anti-RH bishops. It also ignores the rights of non-Catholics as well as non-Christians, and presumes that only Catholics deserve representation in law, if not in Congress.

Others have played to the gallery by inveighing against abortion, alleging that the bill, which reiterates that abortion is illegal, would on the contrary legalize it. Either out of malice or ignorance of the fact that it makes having children and planning the number of children a couple wants a matter of choice, still others proclaim that the bill would compel Filipino couples to use artificial contraception. Echoing the views of some Catholic bishops, those of a more fundamentalist mind declare that intervening in the “natural process” of procreation is an offense against God. With their bad grammar and worse pronunciation, few of the country’s lawmakers inspired much confidence.

Some Church hierarchs have argued against the idea that an RH law would be a solution to poverty — about which, however, they are right. Some countries, for example South Africa, where family planning has been in place for years, remain poor despite declining birth rates. There is truth as well in the argument that what’s needed to address poverty are the economic, political and social policies that so far seem to have eluded every administration including the present one.

The bishops who raise that argument may have a point, but it’s a straw figure they’re fighting. House Bill 4244 doesn’t claim that it would alleviate poverty, despite what seems to be President Benigno Aquino III’s assumption that that is indeed the bill’s aim. As any reading of its declaration of policy will reveal, HB 4244 would first of all make information and knowledge about reproductive health available. It is primarily meant to address the country’s high maternal death rate by providing the information, the means and the opportunity for everyone to enjoy reproductive health, while protecting women’s rights and the rights and welfare of children.

These are non-controversial, practically motherhood statements that have been current in other countries for years. It defies understanding why Church hierarchs as well as laymen and women should be so outraged over a bill that, among others, (1) doesn’t allow abortion, and in fact reaffirms, that abortion is illegal; (2) would provide couples the information as well as the means of preventing unwanted pregnancies so they can plan their families both for the health of the mother and to enable the family to better care for their children; (3) makes no claim to lowering the birth rate as the road to the eradication of poverty; and (4) would give couples the choice of planning their families or not, as well as making the means to do so, whether natural or artificial, available.

Such other dilatory questions as the constitutionality of using public funds for the establishment of a system that would assure reproductive health among citizens have also been settled, it being self- evident, contrary to the views of some bishops, that the state can use public funds in furtherance of social policy.

The vehemence with which some hierarchs of the Catholic Church have argued against the RH bill has understandably led to the suspicion that it’s not so much its provisions but the very idea of such a bill that’s unacceptable to some members of the clergy including several bishops. Because the bill would provide the information citizens need to take control of at least the reproductive aspect of their lives rather than continuing to entrust the shaping of those lives to the institutional Church, some Church hierarchs think it would undermine Church influence and power — the very power, such as excommunication and even civil disobedience, that some bishops have been threatening to unleash against the politicians supportive of the bill, including President Aquino III.

Catholic Church dogma entrusts the interpretation of doctrine as well as the living of the righteous life to the guidance of the clergy rather than to the individual: God after all drove Adam and Eve from Eden for eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. A laity ignorant even of their bodies and their reproductive choices not only makes the Church central to people’s lives. It also enhances its temporal power and its role as a major player in the country’s affairs. It’s all about control, the 400-year history of the Church in the Philippines being the history of its deliberate, sustained, and — so it hopes– eternal involvement in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the nation.

The same worldly view drove the Church’s attempt to legislate mandatory religious instruction in the schools in the 1930s and its campaign against the teaching of Jose Rizal’s life and works in Philippine schools in the 1950s. The same impulse is behind its frantic opposition to the RH bill. Managing information and preventing its dissemination by other sources, and the consequent development among the flock of a capacity to make independent decisions on public policy or their private lives, has been its historical focus since the conquistadores seized these islands for Church and Spanish Crown. Information, choice, and knowledge, whether about society or one’s body, are forbidden fruit.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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