Walden Bello* at Inquirer.net

REPRESENTATIVE Edcel Lagman of Albay has a term for legislative measures that gain approval in a congressional committee yet never make it to a full floor debate owing to one reason or other. He calls them “Mona Lisa” bills. “Mona Lisa” because, as he explains, “as that line from Nat King Cole’s famous song goes, ‘they just lie there and they die there.’.”

The Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008 – better known as the “RH bill” – is one of those Mona Lisa bills. The RH bill, however, did not die of neglect or lack of interest, which is the case with most of these measures. In this case, Mona Lisa was murdered.

During the last three Congresses, RH has been a topic that has elicited great controversy owing to rock solid opposition from the Catholic Church. In the 14th Congress, however, it was able to win approval in the Committee on Health, setting the stage for a much-awaited debate on the House floor. RH was listed as a priority bill throughout 2009; indeed, before the Christmas recess, the rules for the debate on it were being discussed.

When the House reassembled on January 18, however, RH had disappeared from the Speaker of the House’s list of priority bills. Inquiries by proponents of the bill produced evasive replies from the House leadership. When the House adjourned for the elections on Feb 3, RH was dead. The reason, however, was painfully obvious.

In December, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) instructed the electorate not to vote for candidates who espoused RH. Alongside this decree had unfolded a massive campaign that involved systematic disinformation about the bill. Among the malicious allegations that were spread was that the bill imposes penalties on parents who do not allow their children to have premarital sex. Another was that the bill promotes the use of abortifacients or methods of contraception that induce abortion.

It was not in the interest of the anti-RH lobby to have an open debate on the House floor because a rational, enlightened exchange would have revealed the aims of the bill to be not only morally legitimate but ethically imperative. Foremost among these goals is to provide women with the information and means to enhance their reproductive health. Second is to provide partners with the information and means to practice family planning. Third is to provide men and women with the information and means to avoid sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV-AIDS, which has now reached epidemic proportions.

The anti-RH lobby knew that even if the bill lost on the House floor, a debate on it would have contributed immensely to the enlightenment of the Catholic electorate, the majority of which, according to recent surveys, already favor modern methods of family planning and enhancing reproductive health. Thus, deploying its tremendous political clout, the lobby colluded with the House leadership to carry out a silent procedural homicide.

There is a great deal at stake in the RH debate. One of them is the preservation of the principle of the separation of Church and State. The Church seeks to prevent the State from having a say on reproductive issues. Yet the State must have a say since it has a responsibility for the health of the country and the health of women citizens in particular. The State must concern itself with reproductive issues because it must balance the needs of society and the fragility of the environment. The State must involve itself with reproductive concerns because it has a mandate to end poverty and promote national development.

Another bedrock principle of our liberal democracy that is threatened by the Church campaign against RH is pluralism. Many constituencies favor RH, and among these are other religious organizations, including Christian churches. Yet one religious denomination arrogates to itself the right to speak for all religions and to veto the opinion of other religious organizations on reproductive rights. This is absolutism, not democracy, and if allowed to go unchecked, it will erode the tolerance that is an essential component for the survival of our pluralistic polity.

Pro-RH people are not against the Catholic Church. Indeed, most admire the Church’s stance on many other issues – for instance, its urging voters to vote for candidates according to the dictates of their conscience. But does not this stand promoting respect for the individual’s conscience not contradict its ordering voters not to vote for pro-RH candidates?

The Church, to its credit, supports measures that would end poverty, like agrarian reform. Yet it opposes an initiative that would address one of the key causes of poverty, which is the failure of poor families to control the size of their families through natural means? The Church has – again to its credit – taken up the cudgels for the environment. But it opposes effective family planning measures that would rein in one of the key forces behind environmental degradation: unrestrained population growth.

The Church lobby is powerful. Not only has it intimidated Speaker Prospero Nograles and the House leadership into killing RH procedurally. It has also now forced presidential contender Gilbert Teodoro to renounce his support for RH. And there are reports that Noynoy Aquino is also backing away from his support for RH.

Punishing people at the polls for their beliefs is certainly less reprehensible than burning them at the stake, which the Church did to dissenters centuries ago. But resorting to electoral punishment exhibits the same absolutist frame of mind that threatened Galileo with burning if he did not recant.

Yet, just as we have left the Inquisition behind, so are we destined to advance towards a more tolerant pluralist polity that makes decisions based not on intimidation and threat but on enlightened democratic debate. Mona Lisa may have been murdered this time around, but let those who have killed her be put on notice that, as Congressman Lagman predicted, she will be resurrected in the 15th Congress or in succeeding Congresses until she is finally enacted into law.


*Walden Bello is a member of the House of Representatives representing Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party), president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, and senior analyst at Focus on the Global South.