The time has come to put the reproductive health (RH) bill to a vote, Malacañang officials and lawmakers supporting the measure said Sunday.
“We can’t leave it hanging,” Transportation Secretary Joseph E.A. Abaya, a former lawmaker, said on the eve of a meeting with lawmakers led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Liberal Party (LP) leaders that President Aquino is presiding over at the Palace to muster support for the passage of the bill.
Abaya, LP executive vice president, said the House of Representatives had reached a stage where the bill “should be put to a vote.”
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago said it was time for a showdown.
“Rich or poor, Filipinos want the RH bill. We should do head-butting now,” said Santiago, cosponsor of the bill in the Senate, which would to provide women, especially the poor, access to different forms of contraception so they can plan the size of their families.
She said she was confident of winning the showdown. She counted 13 senators in favor of the measure, one head short of the 14 that Sen. Panfilo Lacson, one of those who filed a bill on RH, earlier announced.
She reminded politicians to be sensitive to public opinion and realize that as many as 80 percent of respondents in surveys on the RH bill favored its approval.
Best before Dec. 21
The best time to vote on the bill is before Congress adjourns on Dec. 21 for the holidays, otherwise it would be too late, said Secretary Manuel Mamba, head of the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office (PLLO).
Mamba said there would be just a few weeks of sessions next year before the campaign for the midterm elections in May 2013 went into high gear in February.
He said the President was making a final pitch to members of the House to show up and vote on the measure before the holiday season.
Majority and minority leaders, leaders of the LP, Nacionalista Party, and Nationalist People’s Coalition and National Unity Party (formerly Kampi), and most of the House members are expected to turn up at the meeting in Malacañang at noon today.
All lawmakers were invited, according to Mamba.
He said Mr. Aquino would put forward one request: Show up at plenary deliberations, produce a quorum and vote on the measure.
“That’s the compromise I’m expecting. Vote on it, however it goes,” Mamba said by phone.
“He (the President) will ask them that they should be there so that there will be a quorum and that they can vote on it. They can’t just archive it and decide later on. When is that going to happen again?” the PLLO chief said.
For weeks, the House had failed to introduce amendments to the bill in plenary due to a lack of quorum, no thanks to absentee lawmakers, mostly administration allies. “Even the coauthors have disappeared,” Mamba said.
When it finally mustered a quorum last week, the chamber accepted a “substitute bill”—House Bill No. 4244—that purportedly incorporated all the amendments.
The new version gives priority to the poor in the provision of birth control methods and bans contraceptives that prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum, as this is considered abortion by the Catholic Church.
On Saturday, the President attended a thanksgiving Mass for the elevation of Manila Archbishop Luis “Chito” Tagle to the College of Cardinals in what was seen as a “thawing of relations” between the state and the Church.
The meeting, however, hardly made a dent on the President’s position on the bill, which is fiercely opposed by the Church for purportedly promoting use of contraceptives and abortion.
“You know, I disagree that there was a change of heart. That has always been his position. The President is pro-RP—responsible parenthood—but he’s always maintained that it should be voted according to your conscience,” the President’s deputy spokesperson, Abigail Valte, said over government-run radio.
The President’s attendance at Tagle’s Mass showed that “men of principle can have disagreements on certain issues but they can still break bread together,” Valte said.
Monday’s meeting in Malacañang may be the President’s final chance to make a personal appeal to the 287-member House to vote on the RH bill.
“He has always told them that they’re leaders, and as leaders, they should lead their people,” Mamba said.
Abaya agreed. “For such an important bill, I think the President wants to be involved to make his message clear on what his guidance and policy direction is, not only to Liberal Party but [also] to other supporters,” he said by phone.
“I’m sure some are confused. So it greatly helps if he comes forward and makes a statement. It erases all [doubts],” Abaya added.
Mamba, whose office acts as the middleman between the executive branch and Congress, said he was “optimistic about the outcome.”
He recalled that lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to terminate debates on the RH bill after emerging from the Aug. 5 meeting with the President.
“Yes, that can be put to a vote,” Mamba added, referring to the substitute bill which he said was acceptable to Malacañang. “After all, the President has always told them that ‘we will implement whatever you pass.’”
Abaya said “every inch” would be a battle from now on, but added that there was “still a shot at approval” before Congress adjourns this month.
Should it come to voting, Mamba himself wasn’t confident that the bill would breeze through approval.
“It could go either way,” he said, admitting that pro-RH lawmakers enjoyed a “slim margin” over their anti-RH colleagues.
The bill is a priority measure but it has not been certified as urgent by the President.
Mamba said the President would certify a measure as urgent if it was certain that it would be passed on second and third reading on the same day. “It’s useless to certify it as urgent if there is no quorum,” he said.
Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat, an LP deputy spokesperson, said Mr. Aquino was expected to call on lawmakers to vote on the bill, but was not inclined to dictate on lawmakers which side to choose.
But one opponent of the measure, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, said that if Malacañang forced a vote on the bill immediately after the meeting, without completing the period of amendments, it would “strain relations between the Catholic Church and the President.”
Rodriguez has begged off from attending the Palace meeting, saying he won’t be swayed into changing his position on the bill.
Baguilat said proponents of the measure had already modified the original reproductive health bill to address the concerns of bishops.
He believed that while the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines would continue to oppose the passage of the bill, there were prelates who softened their stance on the measure.
“Privately, many bishops are comfortable with the language of the substitute bill,” he said.
Asked to explain her confidence that pro-RH legislators would win, Santiago said: “Apart of course from a politician’s concerns, the first consideration in the real world is how many voters want the RH bill? If that is what the voter wants, why go against the one who has power to determine whether he or she remains senator or congressman?”
“If anyone calls for a vote, we already have 13,” Santiago said in a radio interview.
Besides, the RH bill had already languished for 15 years in Congress. Surely, it would be unimaginable for lawmakers “to let it die of old age,” she said.
Originally posted: 10:42 pm | Sunday, December 2nd, 2012