In the debate over the issue of reproductive health, it’s unfortunate that the Catholic Church has taken an ‘all or nothing’ stand on House Bill 5043, because while it’s clear that, in terms of both the moral and constitutional law, the bill contains serious flaws, the Church cannot ignore the fact that, in the Philippines, the rate of infant mortality remains high. Illegal abortions occur on a daily basis, endangering the health of the mother, aside from the killing of the unborn. Filipinos, in general, appear largely ignorant of basic sexuality information; this is what leads to unwanted children and illegal abortions.
Whether the Church likes it or not, reproductive health is an issue that Filipinos must address, and, instead of opposing the bill’s passage, the Church must work with the bill’s authors to come up with a mutually acceptable governing policy to help address the issue of reproductive health. As Fr. Eric Genilo, SJ, states in his paper, “A Different Paradigm: Critical and Constructive Engagement Amending the Reproductive Health Bill”,
By working together to amend the objectionable provisions of the Bill and retain the provisions that actually improve the lives of Filipinos, both the proponents and opponents of the current Bill can make a contribution to protection of the dignity of Filipinos and an improvement of their quality of life.
According to Fr. Genilo, whose ideas have helped clarify my own, it’s possible to explore several proposals to amend the current bill so that it becomes more acceptable to Catholics. Since the list of proposals is a little long, I’ll be dividing it into two parts so that it’s more easily read. Here is the first set of proposals, with my own comments.
The Protection of Human Life and The Constitution
• The Bill must explicitly align itself with the Philippine Constitution regarding the starting point of the protection of human life. There must be a statement in the Bill that states in clear terms that the Bill affirms the constitutional protection of human life at the moment of conception. Such a statement will address the criticism that the Bill implicitly holds that human life is to be protected at implantation.
Comment: It should be noted that a number of drugs and devices that are identified as essential medicines are actually abortifacient in nature. If such is the case, it violates the section in the Constitution which states that life of the unborn starts from the time of conception. By revising the Bill such that it is in line with the Constitution, it put to rest fears that the bill is pro-abortion.
A Clear Position Against Abortion in all Forms
• The Bill must explicitly state that it rejects the promotion, sale, or provision of any medicine, devices, or procedures that lead to direct abortions which include the causing of non-implantation of embryos as well as the direct killing/removal of implanted embryos or fetuses. Such a statement will ensure that abortifacient devices, medicines, and procedures will not be part of the Bill's reproductive health program. This will address the objection made against the current Bill that it provides access to medicines and devices that have abortifacient effects.
Comment: Perhaps one oversight of the Ateneo educators who tried to argue in favor of the bill’s passage in their position paper is that they failed to note the nature of some of the drugs and devices, which are abortifacient. The bill, though, reaffirms the prohibition against abortion, so this shouldn’t be difficult to revise.
An Age Appropriate, Value Based Sexuality Education Program that Respects the Diversity of Religious Traditions in the Country
• The Bill should not have one RH Education curriculum written by the POPCOM and the DEPED for both private and public schools.
• Sectarian schools should be allowed to write and implement their own human sexuality education curriculum according their religious traditions. For Catholic schools, the CEAP can spearhead the writing of the curriculum using the best practices found in its top member schools. The Bill should ensure compliance of sectarian schools by giving a reasonable deadline for the implementation of their curricula.
• For public schools and non-sectarian private schools, an appointed panel of DEPED educators, experts in child development and psychology, medical experts, and representatives of religious traditions will write the human sexuality education curriculum and the DEPED will monitor the implementation. This sexuality education curriculum should include human value formation and respect for life, personal and social responsibility, and prevention of sexual abuse of children. It would be better for the POPCOM not to be directly involved in the writing of the public school curricula to avoid the accusation that the curricula would focus mainly on contraceptive methods. The public school curriculum writers can refer also to the best samples of curricula from sectarian schools.
• The question of whether information on contraception would be part of the public school curriculum should be addressed by an examination of real empirical evidence and not by mere speculation and emotional rhetoric. Does the provision of information about contraceptives to teenagers reduce or increase incidences of teenage premarital sex, teenage pregnancies, abortions, or STDs? These are serious public heath questions that need to be answered through a consideration of concrete, verifiable, and reliable empirical evidence and not speculations based on anecdotal evidence, personal opinions, or propaganda from lobby groups.
• Parents with children in public schools should have the right to have their children exempted from the sexuality education class if the curriculum is not acceptable to them.
• The Bill must respect the conscientious objection of individual educators who refuse to teach a human sexuality curriculum that violates their religious beliefs.
Comment: This, of course, is one of the thorny issues, as conservative Catholics have a strong bias against such classes being held at all. However, it is important that students be made aware of the importance of reproductive health, and, if Catholics are the ones who form the curriculum, then it should be generally acceptable to other Catholics. Of course, public schools will hold to the DEPED curriculum, and it will be up to Catholic parents who send their children to these school to decide what is best for their children.
Providing Reproductive Health Information and Services
• The current state of affairs: The sale of non-abotifacient contraceptives is not prohibited by law. These are already available in drugstores and other outlets.. Sterilizations are already provided by non-Catholic hospitals. The Philippines is a society with a diversity of religious positions on contraceptives and sterilization. There are religious traditions in the country that do not have any prohibition against the use of contraceptives and sterilization.
• Since contraceptives and sterilizations can be legally procured, the Bill must ensure that accurate and comprehensive information on all forms of family planning methods that are already available (NFP, artificial contraception, and sterilization).
• It would be the duty of various churches and sects to teach their faithful and form their consciences about what their religious tradition allows and prohibits with regard to family planning. Informed and formed consciences will be better equipped to make correct choices.
• Information on effectivity/failure rates and side effects of all family planning methods should be taken from reliable evidence-based sources, not from special interest groups such as drug companies and ideological organizations. The Philippine Medical Association can verify the accuracy of the information provided by the government on NFP, contraceptives, and sterilizations.
• The conscience of health workers and trainers should be respected. If a Catholic health worker or trainer conscientiously objects to teaching contraception methods, he or she should be allowed to teach only NFP methods.
• The conscientious objection of health care professionals should also be respected (as provided by the present Bill). They should be exempted from providing contraceptive/sterilizing services if this goes against their religious beliefs.
The challenge for the Church and its leaders is to be able to respond to the bill's contents with objectivity and with the goal of working to better the state of the Filipino people, especially the poor.
In the second part, we’ll take a look at the other proposals, and try to tie up the whole discussion.