Talk given by Marilen J. Danguilan about her book “The RH Bill Story” at SEA Junction on 28 November 2018
Thank you very much to everybody for coming here. Thank you very much to Lia Sciortino and SEA Junction for organizing this forum. And so here we are now. And I want to talk with you about how I made the book.
The RH Bill worked its way through Congress in eleven years—a relatively short time. Bills like the National Land Use Act and the Freedom for Information Act have not seen the light of day for over 20 years. As for the RH bill, its progress got stalled by legislators who did not want to put it on the agenda; by those who refused to veer away from the policy of their president or whoever was in power; and by those who feared the Catholic Church hierarchy, and what it could possibly do to them. But there were those legislators, too, who did not want the RH Bill to pass because they fervently believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
It was not only the length of time that Congress took to pass the RH Bill that was exasperating. It was also the way the RH Bill was invariably reduced to a bill that provides artificial contraceptives and legalizes abortion. Immediately, this created a wedge between people who were for the bill and those who were against it. Legislators on both sides of the two chambers of Congress described the RH Bill as the “most divisive” in the legislative history of the country.
When the Eighth Congress opened in 1987, Senator Edgardo J. Angara, Chair of the Committee on Health, appointed me the Head of the Technical Staff of the Senate Health Committee. In 1988, together with the legal team of Francis Jardeleza—now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court—we drafted the first anti-smoking bill in the country.
Our anti-smoking bill was breathtaking in scope—from designating no-smoking places to providing incentives to tobacco farmers. We made it to the First Reading, but we never made it to Second Reading. Nothing happened to that bill; it was archived.
After this, my staff and I drafted other bills that became laws. The Generics Act did not have difficulty passing through Congress, despite the strong lobby against it. The purpose and content of the bill was clear and focused: recognize the generics instead of the brands. Also, the Rooming-in and Breastfeeding Bill was not met with much resistance because it was focused on a single objective: make newborns physically connect with their mothers so they can breastfeed and thrive. Who would argue with that?
In 1994, with a team from the Department of Health and other agencies, we drafted the PhilHealth Law that established social health insurance in the country. The message was compelling: make government pay, as much as possible, for Filipinos’ health care; it is their right. The legislators – and the people – loved it. The legislators somehow understood what we were doing. The organizing principle was focused, simple, and clear. The structures and mechanisms for enforceability were just as straightforward. And these bills did not provoke heated discussions.
The RH Bill was different. It generated topics such as sex, abortion, contraceptives, sperms, and fertilized eggs. There was talk about links between contraception and corruption and about contraceptives fostering genocide or terrorism.
Reproductive health—the concept is alien, confusing, and complex, not only in the Philippines but all over the world. Health ministers would usually write “FP/RH” (family planning/RH) as if they were one and the same thing. Perhaps we are better acquainted with it now, after all these years, and especially during the passage of the RH Bill in Congress.
In 1994, 179 countries, including the Philippines, met in Cairo, and adopted the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action. The countries agreed that population policies must empower couples and individuals—women especially–-to decide the size of their families and enable them to decide by giving them the necessary information and services to carry out their decisions.
The RH Bill incorporated the ICPD’s definition of reproductive health. The thinking behind this definition is that empowering a woman is key to achieving reproductive health. Recognizing, acknowledging, and establishing the conditions that would fulfill her rights are foundational to her empowerment. Translating this to a legislative bill required daring and imagination. But shepherding the bill through the legislative process in the middle of constant pressures, ceaseless attacks, and criticisms—without yielding—called for stamina, compassion, and faith.
And so in this book, I tried to capture this. I made the legislative history the central point of this book. It is the legislative history that shows how a bill—from the First to the Second and Third Readings—gets transformed and becomes a law. But then, legislation would only go as far as the provisions of the 1987 Constitution would allow. Specifically, Article II, Section 12 of the 1987 Constitution that provides for the equal protection of the mother and the unborn from conception, became the most significant hindrance to the passage of the RH Bill, and eventually to the implementation of the RH Law.
I, therefore, devoted chapters to the deliberations in the Constitutional Commission in 1986. How did ideas like “equal protection of the mother and the unborn from conception” and “the demands of responsible parenthood” get entrenched in the 1987 Constitution? What were the intentions of those who introduced these concepts? And what are the implications of these constitutional provisions for the RH Bill’s enactment to law, and more crucially, for its implementation?
Another important point about legislation is that it is not confined to the session halls of both chambers of Congress. I wrote about the Catholic Church hierarchy and its allied groups, as well as NGOs that were critical in the passage of the RH Bill: Likhaan, the Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development, the Reproductive Health Action Network, and the Filipino Freethinkers, among many others.
I also wrote about how Presisdent Benigno Aquino exerted his enormous influence on the RH Bill’s passage. Ricky Carandang, PNoy’s Communications Secretary then, said, “PNoy did it at a ‘great personal cost’ to him. His mother, Cory Aquino, who was President after martial law was lifted in 1986, had strong ties with the bishops and they, too, became his friends.” But on this particular issue, PNoy, as we call him, went beyond the bounds of friendships and risked alienating the bishops. He believed in the RH Bill; he was invested in it.
I wrote too about the attempts to quash the RH Law’s implementation: the petitions filed with the Supreme Court to declare the law “unconstitutional”; the motion filed with the Supreme Court that led to a Temporary Restraining Order on all contraceptive drugs and devices. Without contraceptives, there would be no family planning program in the country.
So far, that has been the story of the RH Bill and how it plodded through the legislative mill. Now, the battlegrounds have shifted: from Congress to the Supreme Court and to the Executive Branch, specifically the FDA and the Office of the President. In November 2017, the FDA finally certified that the 51 contraceptive drugs and devices did not induce abortions. As expected, the Catholic Church hierarchy and its allied groups did not take this easily.
When I talked with Senator Leticia Ramos Shahani about this book, she said, “Go beyond the RH Bill. Make it a book on how our democracy works. Show what Congress is and how laws are made.” As far as I know, what we have is still a democracy, even if it is imperfect. And so, I followed her advice in the book launched here today!