“Obviously, the ‘ayes’ have it.”
With this declaration by Deputy Speaker Lorenzo Tañada III, the House of Representatives approved by voice vote on second reading Wednesday night the controversial reproductive health measure, or House Bill No. 4244.
But Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco made a motion for nominal voting to confirm the results of the voice vote. Tiangco was supported by one-fifth of the House or 45 members, the required number for nominal voting. As of 11:30 p.m., the nominal voting was still going on. Of those who had already explained their votes, 70 voted yes and 49 no to the RH bill.
HB 4244 now moves to the third and final reading, a significant step for a measure that had not come this far for the past 13 years in Congress.
The focus now shifts to the Senate where a version of the RH bill is still in the period of individual amendments.
HB 4244 was approved on second reading despite serious concerns raised by the Catholic Church, including several lawmakers, on how it would affect the mentality and sexual habits of the youth, and the economy in the future.
The “nays” were as loud as the “ayes” in the voice voting, but Tañada said the “ayes” had it. He said the crowd in the south wing of the gallery, apparently referring to anti-RH bill advocates, had joined the lawmakers who said “nay.”
Some members of the crowd doubted Tañada’s call, saying the “nays” seemed to have the louder voices. A nominal vote will confirm if Tañada’s call was correct.
Deputy Speaker Pablo Garcia earlier moved to proceed directly to nominal voting. But he was overruled by Tañada, who said nominal voting could come after the voice vote.
Garcia and other anti-RH lawmakers got their wish after one fifth of House members agreed to put the matter to nominal voting wherein each lawmaker would explain his or her vote.
Batangas Rep. Tomas Apacible, a member of President Aquino’s Liberal Party, voted against the RH bill.
“The President says this is a conscience vote and I believe it and I support him in that stand. But I am also a father more than a legislator,” he said in explaining his vote.
Outgoing Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez, rejected HB 4244, saying, “what is good in Batasan is not always good for the barrios.”
“All the purported things that this bill would do are already covered by a multitude of laws. So it’s a matter of implementation,” he said.
Rep. Emmeline Aglipay threw her support behind the measure, saying: “I am not against life. I am against ignorance.”
Akbayan Rep. Arlene Bag-ao, a coauthor of the bill, said: “I vote yes for this bill because it affirms life, it upholds choice, and it underscores responsibility.”
Nominal voting began at exactly 8:15 p.m., three hours after the chamber resumed the period of amendments.
Earlier, with supporters and opponents closely watching deliberations from the gallery, lawmakers wrestled with controversial provisions of HB 4244 particularly the one mandating sex education for pupils.
Clad in bright red, a symbol of sacrifice and fidelity in the Church, prolife groups filled up the south wing of the plenary gallery, awaiting the outcome of the scheduled voting on the floor. At least seven Catholic bishops also stayed on to closely monitor the proceedings.
RH supporters were just as passionate, but were slightly outnumbered as they occupied the opposite gallery.
Lawmakers against the bill won some points, but lost many as Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, principal author and sponsor of the bill, rejected one key amendment after another during marathon deliberations that officially began at 5:17 p.m.
A major point of contention was the provision requiring “mandatory age-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education.”
Lagman rejected a proposal to start teaching such lessons to “senior high school” students, not to Grade 6 pupils as contained in the substitute bill.
Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez expressed fear that the current age bracket might lead to “misunderstanding” among Grade 6 pupils who would be exposed to lessons on “sex, sexuality and reproductive health.”
“It’s irreparable if these children will misapprehend (the lessons),” he said on the floor.
But Lagman insisted that starting at senior high school—or at age 16 or 17—would be “too late.” He assured Rodriguez that the provision would not “make teen sex maniacs.”
Lagman later accepted a proposal to amend the provision, which now states: “Age-appropriate reproductive health and sexuality education shall be taught by adequately trained AND QUALIFIED teachers…”
He also agreed to a proposal by Rodriguez to include the sentence: “Upon due notification by the Department of Education and private educational institutions through the principals in writing two weeks before classes start, parents shall be informed of the option of not allowing their minor children to attend classes pertaining to reproductive health.”
RH opponents also suffered significant losses during the period of amendments on Tuesday night.
Rodriguez said the rejection only unmasked HB 4244 as a “birth control bill.” Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez sought to delete the provision on “population and development,” saying it was a “buzz word for population control.”
Lagman slammed the door on efforts to include definitions of “birth control,” “contraception” and “responsible parenthood.” But accepted those on “natural family planning” and “contraceptive devices” (as stated in an existing law).
A major battleground was Paragraph I of the guiding principles, which stated: “While this act recognizes that abortion is illegal and punishable by law, the government shall ensure that all women needing care for post-abortion complications shall be treated and counselled in a humane, non-judgmental and compassionate manner.”
While there was no quarrel over the opening clause, Rodriguez said the succeeding portion would “really encourage abortion.”
“It is unnecessary,” he said during the six-hour deliberations that ended at around 10 p.m. “This kind of language will give the impression that precisely that is OK, you have abortion. You will be taken care of (anyway). That has no place in the law.”
A number of bishops, including Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, stayed on to watch the proceedings. Together with prolife supporters clad in red shirts, they filled the south wing of the plenary hall.
Manila Rep. Amado Bagatsing agreed with Rodriguez, saying doctors had the duty to “treat all these patients” even if they involved women who had sought abortion.
Lagman replied before rejecting the amendment: “It is just like an encounter between government forces and rebels and a rebel is wounded. It is the obligation of the government to bring the wounded rebel to the nearest medical facility. But it is not condoning rebellion.”
In the end, the provision was amended as: “While this act recognizes that abortion is illegal and punishable by law, the government shall ensure that all women needing care for post-abortion complications AND OTHER COMPLICATIONS DUE TO PREGNANCY, CHILDBIRTH AND RELATED ISSUES shall be treated and counselled in a humane, non-judgmental and compassionate manner WITHOUT CONDONING ABORTION.”
Rodriguez moved to delete another provision stating “that a comprehensive reproductive health program addresses the needs of people throughout their life cycle.”
“This would mean that by buying condoms and contraceptives, it will solve the problems of all the people of this country. That is not so,” he argued, but was rejected by Lagman who said: “What is misleading are the conclusions and statements—I am sorry to say—of the distinguished gentleman.”
Golez did not get to delete the provision on “population and development.” But Lagman acceded to another proposal, which amended part of the provision. The term would now refer “to a program that aims to (1) help couples and parents achieve their desired family size IN ACCORDANCE WITH THEIR RELIGION.”
Deliberations became occasionally heated, especially after Lagman accepted none of the proposed amendments during long stretches. When he finally agreed to include a definition of “natural family planning,” Rodriguez reminded him that he had rejected “six definitions in a row.”
“No reason to jump like chimpanzees for 1 over 7,” he said.
Golez succeeded in introducing a condition in the definition of “reproductive health and sexuality education.” There is now a portion stating that such lessons would not be “inserted into disciplines like mathematics, literature, history, geography and other subjects that are not directly related to sexual education.”
“If it’s sex education, then let it be sex education and not disguised as some other subjects,” Golez argued.