MANILA, Philippines — As the Aquino administration and the Catholic Church take steps to improve relations, an ally of President Benigno Aquino III said the prelates should not take it against him when he called on lawmakers to decide on the reproductive health bill once and for all.
The President has invited members of the House of Representatives to a lunch meeting on Monday to discuss the fate of the controversial measure and the quorum problems in the chamber.
Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat, a deputy spokesperson of the President’s Liberal Party, said Sunday, Aquino had made no secret of his stand on the bill and that it was only natural for him to push for a vote on it.
“The Church shouldn’t be surprised PNoy (Aquino’s nickname) is doing this make-or-break dialogue with the House to vote on the bill, irrespective of our stand,” Baguilat said when asked if he thought the meeting would affect the President’s seemingly improving ties with the Catholic Church.
“PNoy is only doing what he should as a leader and that’s going to Congress and lobbying for his bills,” he added.
But he said that Aquino, while calling on lawmakers to vote on the bill, was not inclined to dictate on lawmakers which side to choose.
The President earlier earned Church ire when he pushed for the reproductive health, which would in part require the distribution of contraceptives.
But things have apparently started improving when President Aquino attended the Thanksgiving Mass for the elevation of Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle to the College of Cardinals.
But one opponent of the measure, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, said on Sunday that if Malacañang forced a vote on the bill immediately after the luncheon, without completing the period of amendments, it would “strain relations between the Catholic Church and the President.”
According to him, opponents of the measure, who have a similar stance with the Church, still have a lot of changes to propose. An immediate vote would also violate the House rules and the right of lawmakers, and would also be “arbitrary and oppressive,” he said.
Rodriguez also said he feared a repeat of the Aug. 6 meeting between lawmakers and the President, which led to the termination of the debates on the bill on the same day.
“I hope if the President will say there should be a vote, it would be without prejudice to more amendments,” he said.
Rodriguez has begged off from attending the Palace meeting, saying he would not 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.
The substitute bill, which has replaced the original version, was the product of a dialogue between pro- and anti- reproductive health bill groups, as well as Church and Palace representatives, he said.
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.
In the House, however, opponents have said that the new version of the reproductive health bill has failed to sway them. They also opposed the acceptance of the substitute bill as the new version of the measure, saying the process was marred by technical infirmities.
The new version of the bill 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 some sectors.
Another lawmaker, Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara, said the bill should be put to a vote now as it has been delaying other measures in the House.
“Irrespective of the pros and antis, it has become an issue of legislative efficiency. Simply put, the bill has taken too much of Congress’ time and should be put to a vote. And all sides must respect the outcome,” Angara said.