President Aquino on Monday said that “if he were still a member of the House of Representatives, he would vote for the responsible parenthood bill,” his spokesperson, Secretary Edwin Lacierda, said in a statement.
Mr. Aquino shared with lawmakers “the discernment that led to his taking this position” during a crucial caucus on the reproductive health (RH) bill in Malacañang, Lacierda said.
The President stressed that the House must act on the pending RH bill sooner rather than later.
“The issue has been divisive for too long; the time has come to put the matter to rest. He suggested that a week should be adequate time to consider amendments that genuinely improve the bill—in contrast to ‘killer amendments’—and that at the end of that period, it is incumbent on representatives to vote,” Lacierda said.
The lower chamber has to race against time to vote on the measure before the holiday season, otherwise it might be too late and too close to the campaign season for the midterm elections in May 2013, a Malacañang official had said.
The President first met with Liberal Party (LP) members, led by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., and then with members of its coalition partners, Nacionalista Party, Nationalist People’s Coalition and National Unity Party (formerly Kampi) from 11 a.m. to around 1:30 p.m.
“‘There are material issues that we need to address—and we must address them in conscience,’ the President said. He further told the lawmakers that ‘we are taught that our conscience is the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong—and that at the end of the day, we will all be asked: What did you do to the least of your brethren?’” Lacierda said.
In his talk, the President recalled his encounter with a 16-year-old mother, who had just given birth to her second child and whose husband had no stable source of income, during a visit to Baseco Compound, a slum area in Manila, Lacierda said.
“The President reflected on the sobering realities the young lady’s plight represented: Instead of being able to have a normal adolescence, here was a young lady already struggling with the truth of having two children,” he said.
“He asked the representatives to consider, too, the circumstances surrounding the child born to such a young parent: What kind of a future would such a child have in terms of basic needs, like nutrition, and other future prospects down the line?” Lacierda added.
After being confronted with the girl’s story, the President said he asked himself who was to blame for her plight, Lacierda said.
“The President said that such a situation posed a challenge of conscience and leadership to all those who have put themselves forward to serve their constituents. ‘Can you,’ the President asked, ‘in good conscience, consent to the perpetuation of this state of affairs?’” he said.
The President also shared his belief that “genuine leaders” could not put off a decision on a “divisive issue,” Lacierda said.
Make a choice
“It should be resolved at the soonest possible time. Leadership comes not just with perks but also with responsibilities, and among those responsibilities is that of making a choice. He asked how anyone could oppose offering parents the opportunity to make informed choices about the number of children they have and about having the fullest opportunity to understand the requirements for raising healthy offspring,” he said.
The President ended by saying that “to do nothing is to exacerbate the problem,” Lacierda said.
“Our responsibility is to craft the best possible measure, to offer the best possible opportunities for our children to grow and prosper,” he added, quoting Mr. Aquino.
But as the lawmakers drove back to the House of Representatives to resume plenary deliberations on the bill, it became clear that even members of the President’s Liberal Party were divided on the issue.
In an interview outside the Malacañang gate after the caucus, Deputy Speaker Raul Daza acknowledged that even LP members in the House, numbering 94, were divided on the bill. He said he himself would vote against it, saying that there’s no “public calamity or emergency” that necessitates its immediate enactment.
“It’s a close vote,” Daza said, when asked how LP members in the House would vote on it. “Even the President acknowledged that all the parties are divided. Even the minority is divided.”
Mr. Aquino did not tell the lawmakers to vote for the controversial legislation, Nueva Ecija Rep. Rodolfo Antonino said in an interview.
“It’s now up to the leaders to schedule when will that [voting] be and how to go about it,” he said.
In a briefing, the President’s deputy spokesperson, Abigail Valte, said Mr. Aquino called the caucus to tell the lawmakers to produce a quorum and end discussions by putting it to a vote.
For weeks, the bill had been stuck in the period of amendments in plenary due to a lack of quorum caused by absent lawmakers, who were either campaigning or feared provoking the ire of their parish priests in the run-up to the May elections.
It was only last week, after finally mustering a quorum, that the lawmakers adopted a “substitute bill” for debate.
The new version prioritizes the poor in the provision of birth control methods and bans contraceptives that prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum, which is considered abortion by the Catholic Church.
Daza said nobody requested the President to certify the measure as urgent but doubted Mr. Aquino would do this, saying “he’s already said he’s parsimonious about certifying bills as urgent.”
Secretary Manuel Mamba, head of the Presidential Legislative Liaison Office, had said the pro-RH lawmakers had a slim margin over the anti-RH lawmakers, and the vote could “go either way.”
According to Antonino, the lawmakers were not asked to give a response to the President’s statement.
Three-fourths of LP members turned up at the caucus, moderated by Belmonte, Valte said.
Representatives Henedina Abad of Batanes and Fernando Gonzalez of Albay, Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II and Daza were among those who shared their views on the bill during the LP caucus with the President, she added.
“It was a matter of the individual positions of the congressmen who stood up,” Valte said.