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SC upholds legality of RH law

THE Supreme Court upheld Tuesday a controversial birth control law in a stunning defeat for the Catholic Church, but struck down eight key provisions of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act.

“The RH law is not unconstitutional,” Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te told reporters, announcing a ruling that struck down 15 petitions against the reproductive health law by church groups.

The law requires government health centers to hand out free condoms and birth control pills, as well as mandating that sex education be taught in schools.

Opposing sides. The pros (right) and the antis of
the Reproductive Health Law  gather at Supreme
Court compound in Baguio City on Tuesday while
the justices deliberate on the issue. AFP
The law also requires that public health workers receive family planning training, while post abortion medical care is also legalized, even though abortion itself is still deemed illegal.

But the justices declared as unconstitutional Section 7 of the law, which requires private hospitals owned by religious groups to refer patients to other health facilities, and to allow minors who suffered a miscarriage to use modern family planning methods without the consent of their parents.

The Court also declared as unconstitutional Section 17, which requires the granting of free services to poor women as a prerequisite for health care providers to secure PhilHealth accreditation.

The justices also voided provisions in Section 23 penalizing health workers who fail or refuse to disseminate information on RH programs regardless of religious beliefs, allowing married individuals to undergo RH procedures without the consent of their spouses, health care providers who refuse to refer non-emergency patients to another facility regardless of religious beliefs, health workers who require parental consent from a minor in non-emergency cases and public officials who refuse to support RH programs regardless of religion.

Aside from the provisions in the law, the Court also struck down Section 3 of the law’s implementing rules and regulations, which defined “abortifacient” as contraceptives that “primarily” induce abortion.

Most provisions in the law, however, were upheld by the high court.

Associate Justice Jose Mendoza wrote the decision, while Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno wrote her separate opinion in Filipino.

Until Tuesday, the Catholic Church had led a successful campaign for more than 15 years against any form of family planning laws in the Philippines.

President Benigno Aquino III signed the law in December 2012, but the Supreme Court quickly suspended it after church groups filed petitions arguing it was unconstitutional.

“This monumental decision upholds the separation of church and state and affirms the supremacy of government in secular concerns like health and socio-economic development,” said Edcel Lagman, the principal author of the law, said immediately after the verdict.

“A grateful nation salutes the majority of justices for their favorable ruling promoting reproductive health and giving impetus to sustainable human development.”

The Catholic Church, which counts over 80 percent of the country’s 100 million population as members, had led street protests denouncing the law as “evil”, and at one point in its opposition campaign threatened Aquino with excommunication.

One of its hardline opponents and a petitioner to the court, former senator Francisco Tatad, said allowing the law to take effect could force Catholics into an open revolt.

“This means civil disobedience at the very least, actual revolt at the most extreme,” Tatad wrote in a commentary in the Manila Standard on Tuesday.

“Some of us will want to defy the power of the devil and die as martyrs, if need be, in the only cause that gives us a chance to fight for something much bigger than ourselves.”

Presidential deputy spokeswoman Abigail Valte, however, said she saw no indications of a Catholic revolt.

Church leaders on Tuesday said they would respect the Supreme Court’s decision, but vowed to continue teaching what is right and what is wrong.

“With or without the SC’s decision, it is the duty of the Church to be teaching life. Our duty does not depend on civil laws, our duties come from God,” Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines president Archbishop Socrates Villegas said.

Villegas encouraged the Catholic faithful to maintain respect for the Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court has decided on the RH issue based on existing laws in the Philippines,” Villegas said in a statement.

Before the decision was handed down, Villegas had attacked the law as promoting a mentality of contraception, which was “the mother of an abortion mentality.”

The law, he added, would encourage immorality among the youth, who will believe that sex before marriage is acceptable “provided you know how to avoid pregnancy.”

Church leaders have helped lead uprisings that toppled two presidents in recent history, and they continue to insist they have a right to influence the parliamentary and legal branches of government.

Another example of the church’s enduring influence is that the Philippines is the only country in the world where divorce remains illegal.

Nevertheless, many Catholics have embraced less conservative views in recent decades.

A recent survey carried by the respected Social Weather Stations polling group said about 84 percent of Filipinos agreed that the government should provide free family planning options such as contraceptives.

It said 72 percent were “in favor” of the law.

Women’s rights groups and other supporters of the law say it will be a powerful tool in fighting poverty and cutting the birth rate of 3.54 percent, one of the highest in the world.

More than a quarter of the population live on the equivalent of 62 cents a day, according to the government, and experts say there is an urgent need to provide free reproductive medical services that the poor cannot otherwise afford.

More than a third of the capital’s 14 million population live in sprawling slums, according to a 2010 World Health Organization report, and many of them do not have access to proper sanitation, let alone health centers.

According to the British medical charity Merlin, which has backed the passage of the law, 14-15 mothers die daily in the Philippines in complications related to child birth.

Both pro- and anti-RH law groups who rallied outside the Supreme Court claimed victory Tuesday.

“This is a victory for everyone and most especially for the women,” said former congresswoman Risa Hontiveros. “What is clear is that we won because the constitutionality of RH law has been upheld.”

Petitioners in the case, who also held vigil outside the compound, made a similar claim.

“This is a victory for us because the key provisions where the bulk of the funding of the RH law, as stated in the measure, have been declared as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court,” said Lito David of the group Pro-Life.

Petitioners had wanted the entire law declared unconstitutional.

The United Nations welcomed the Court ruling.

“Together with the Filipino people, the United Nations celebrates this landmark ruling which recognizes the basic human right of Filipinos to reproductive health,” it said in a statement.

“This year marks the 20-year anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development , which placed people’s rights and dignity at the heart of development. It also affirmed sexual and reproductive health as a fundamental human right and emphasized that empowering women and girls is key to ensuring the well-being of individuals, families, nations and our world.”

The Health Department, a staunch promoter of the law, also welcomed the Court’s decision.

“This has been an amazing day for family planning advocates in the Philippines as we saw a huge victory with the decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act,” the department said in a statement.

It also vowed to respect the Court’s decision to strike down several provisions of the law.

Authors of the law expressed misgivings over the provisions that were struck down, but they welcomed the lifting of the Court’s status quo ante order.

Lagman said the loss of those provisions would not diminish the efficacy of the law or deter its full implementation.

He also said the ruling upheld the separation of church and state.

A co-author of the law, Dinagat Islands Rep. Arlene Kaka Bag-ao, added: “For as long as the state is still mandated and empowered to implement a reproductive health program with the appropriate funding necessary for it to reach Filipinos in need, the historic Supreme Court decision is still a victory for the people, albeit incomplete.”

She lamented that the provisions that were struck down made the law mandatory only to public hospitals but voluntary to private institutions and persons.

Elizabeth Angsioco, president of the Democratic Socialist Women of the Philippines, said while the provisions that were struck down were important, “the law can very well stand without these provisions.”

The law’s co-authors in both chambers—Lagman, Bag-ao, then Iloilo congresswoman and now Health Undersecretary Janette Garin, Pangasinan Rep. Kimi Cojuangco, Senators Pia Cayetano and Miriam Defensor Santiago were hailed as RH champions and congratulated in social media networks.

House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the Supreme Court decision reflected “the desire of the majority” to exercise their freedom of choice.

Reps. Rodel Batocabe of Ako-Bicol party-list, Rodolfo Albano of Isabela, Elpidio Barzaga, Jr. of Cavite, Jorge Banal of Quezon City and Sherwin Tugna of Cibac party-list, in separate interviews, also supported the Court’s decision.

But lawmakers who opposed the law said curbing the nation’s population would not solve its problems.

“No matter what public opinion says, the RH bill will never solve the problems it claims to address. It fails as an economic measure because it tries to lessen our most valuable resource—our people,” said Paranaque Rep. Gus Tambunting. “The RH law, as it is, is not good for society.”

Senate President Franklin Drilon branded the upholding of the law as a “big victory for the Filipino people.”

He also vowed that the Senate would exercise its oversight function to make sure the law had its desired effects.

Santiago thanked the Supreme Court for “facing the fears of a nation and sweeping them away like cobwebs.”

“Thank you, Supreme Court! “ she said.

Cayetano said she was overjoyed by the Supreme Court decision, noting that women have been rallying for the passage of the law for more than a decade.

On March 19 last year, the Court issued a 120-day status quo ante order to stop the government from carrying out the law. When the order expired in July last year, the justices voted 8-7 to extend it indefinitely.

The Court’s decision Tuesday lifted the status quo ante order.

The petitioners had argued that the RH law violates provisions in the Constitution that recognize the sanctity of family life and that protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception.

At least 11 provisions of the law, which allow couples to choose to suppress life, violate this constitutional guarantee, the petitioners said.

They added that the law violated the constitutional freedom of religion and expression of those who continue to oppose it.

The government defended the constitutionality of law, and was joined by six groups of interested parties, including former Health secretaries, Cayetano, and Lagman, who wrote the bill in the House of Representatives.

They asserted that no constitutional rights were violated because the law does not compel them to choose any particular family planning method. – With Joyce Pangco Panares, Dexter See, Vito Barcelo, AFP

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