With resounding “ayes,” the contentious debates on the reproductive health (RH) bill came to an abrupt end Monday in the House of Representatives, just hours after President Benigno Aquino summoned congressmen to the Palace and pleaded to bring the measure forward to its second stage.
This means the controversial population control measure would now go through a period of amendments, before it is put to a vote on second reading on the floor.
For the first time since 188 congressmen agreed to impeach then Chief Justice Renato Corona in blitzkrieg fashion last December in a Japanese restaurant, lawmakers went to lunch in the Palace Monday to attend to yet another priority administration project.
There, they heard Mr. Aquino make what one attendee described as a “diplomatic appeal”—no, the President did not issue marching orders according to this congressman—to 182 lawmakers present during the two-and-a-half hour meeting to end the interpellations in the House that had bogged down progress in discussions of the bill.
Back in the House later, the majority of the 231 members present—including former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao who both oppose the RH bill—yelled “aye!” when asked for a viva voce, or voting orally.
The vote came 24 hours ahead of schedule, short-circuiting attempts by the Catholic Church hierarchy to mount yet another protest against the measure originally set for decision Tuesday. Church leaders have threatened to campaign in next year’s election against lawmakers favoring the RH bill.
‘God have mercy on him’
Navotas Rep. Toby Tiangco moved for nominal voting in an apparent bid to identify those favoring the bill, but withdrew his motion after it was largely ignored as the evening session broke up.
“God have mercy on him and on us,” said Fr. Melvin Castro, executive director of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, of the President’s action just two days after the Church led an anti-RH rally at the Edsa Shrine attended by a crowd of about 10,000. He warned that the Church would not take the move lightly, saying “2013 is just around the corner.”
In the upper chamber, however, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who attended Saturday’s rally, announced he had questions about the bill, calling for the reopening of interpellation. Enrile is against the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Tito Sotto, who is also against the measure, said the House action “does not affect the Senate, as far as I’m concerned.”
Proponents of the bill in the Senate have complained that the leadership was sitting on the measure, threatening to derail administration plans to enact the bill into law this year to afford the poor access to maternal health care and family planning methods.
One opponent of the bill, Anwaray Rep. Florencio Noel, said the period of amendments—the next stage in the lawmaking process—could be equally contentious. This is where compromises may be made and battles on corrections would take place.
Opponents of the bill immediately opposed the formal motion to end the debates when Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II introduced it on the floor.
Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez complained that the original agreement was that the vote would be held Tuesday, adding he still had many questions to ask.
Manila Rep. Amado Bagatsing objected that the No. 6 in the date Monoday—August 6—was unlucky because it was associated with the devil. Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas and Zambales Rep. Milagros Magsaysay wailed against the move as well.
Despite this, the vote to terminate the debates pushed through. By 6:07 p.m., it was all over.
The decision to terminate the debates was made during a meeting with the President, where he shared his thoughts on responsible parenthood with 182 lawmakers, consisting of both supporters and opponents of the measure, according to participants.
Gonzales said the President told lawmakers that the RH bill had been through so much debate and everybody was already familiar with the issues.
Mr. Aquino said the debates should end, and the lawmakers could move on to the next stage to perfect the measure.
But the President also made it clear that he was not telling lawmakers to vote for the bill. He just wanted an end to the debates, which had been going on for years, Gonzales said.
“Everybody agreed. More than that, the consensus was instead of doing it [Tuesday], might was well do it today [Monday],” Gonzales said in a phone interview, though he added later that Mandanas had dissented during the Palace meet.
He said Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez proposed moving up the vote, noting that this was a good idea since the situation in the gallery on the scheduled vote today would probably be tense after interest groups announced plans to troop to the House during the vote.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, a staunch proponent of the bill, said that the President had asked lawmakers to cast a “conscience vote,” to summon the courage to decide as leaders, undeterred by threats of reprisals at the polls, and address health problems and the backlog in education, aggravated by a ballooning population.
Prochildren by choice
Lagman also said the President was for “children by choice, not by chance.”
Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone said among the 182 lawmakers at the Palace lunch were Minority Leader Danilo Suarez and 10 others in the opposition, along with members of the ruling Liberal Party, the Nacionalista Party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition, Lakas-CMD and some party-list groups.
“Both pro- and anti-RH were there,” Gonzales said.
Evardone, a member of the ruling party, made it clear that Mr. Aquino did not pressure House members to speed up the floor debates. “No, in fact, they are all in favor of terminating the period of debates,” he said.
He said that the President was “very diplomatic.”
“He was not very forceful. He did not issue a marching order. He was just appealing, but I think it was a masterstroke on his part to make that bold move to appeal to all the members of Congress regardless of whether you are a supporter or anti-RH,” said Evardone. With reports from Cathy C. Yamsuan and Kristine L. Alave