MANILA, Philippines—President Benigno Aquino III has certified as urgent the reproductive health (RH) bill, virtually ensuring the passage of the controversial measure that has hurdled second reading in the House of Representatives despite a spirited opposition mounted by the influential Catholic Church.
The presidential certification removes the three-day waiting period between the second and third readings of any given bill.
However, since the House version, Republic Act No. 4244 has hurdled second reading (and thus, no need to skip the three-day rule), the certification would boost the chances of Senate Bill No. 2865.
After closing the period of second reading, the Senate could proceed immediately to the third and final reading.
The President’s move signals the formal shift of the battle over the RH bill to the Senate, which was still stuck in the period of individual amendments when the session adjourned last Wednesday.
“We’d really rather (that) this divisive issue, hopefully, will be finished already before we start the new year,” the President told reporters late Thursday after he certified the bill.
“To give them (the lawmakers) the opportunity to finish, especially the Senate, I certified its urgency,” said Mr. Aquino, adding that he expected the certification to be delivered to the offices of the House Speaker and Senate President yesterday, or Monday at the latest.
Racing against time
“Senate approval is needed to complement House approval, so that enactment of an RH law can be achieved within the few remaining session days of the 15th Congress, and after the Christmas break,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma in a text message.
The President said the “too narrow definition” of the constitutional provision on when to certify bills as urgent—“clearly undebatable” emergencies like a state of calamity needing a supplemental budget—did not apply in this case as Congress will go into recess next Thursday, briefly returning after the holidays, only to go into recess again in February 2013 for the election campaign.
Sure enough, anti-RH bill Rep. Rufus Rodriguez questioned the basis of the certification, citing the constitutional provision that gives the President the option only “to meet a public calamity or emergency.”
“What public calamity or emergency is the RH bill supposed to meet to justify its certification as urgent by the President,” said the Cagayan de Oro congressman.
Encounter in Tondo
Explaining why the issue needed state intervention, Mr. Aquino again recalled his encounter with a 16-year-old mother during a visit to the Baseco compound of Tondo, Manila.
The girl, who was barely out of puberty, had just given birth to a second child and had a common-law husband without a stable source of income, he said.
“She’s now 18 and she’s pregnant again with a third child, and she has a new common-law partner,” he told reporters.
“You have a responsibility to those being born into this world. You can’t rely on bahala na (God will provide). What’s wrong with informing them of all these (family planning) choices? Let them choose the size and what method to plan the family etc.,” he said.
No viable solution
The President said that anti-RH groups had not put forward a viable solution to the runaway population growth, save for a blanket denial of the bill’s benefits.
“At the end of the day, what I’ve heard from anti-RH is that they don’t suggest that if you have problems, here’s the solution. They always say, ‘you can’t do that, you can’t do this, you can’t do everything,” said Mr. Aquino.
“If you have a problem there must be a solution, and I think the RH bill presents, especially this massively amended form, a way to address a situation like this. Can anybody here imagine that this 18-year-old lady will be able to improve the lot of her three offspring? Is she capable of raising them and giving them the opportunities? If we do nothing, the three (children), in turn, will repeat the same mistakes, will have a worse situation, will produce another set of multiple (children) who will face a much harsher situation. That’s why I really feel that we have to address the problem, and not pretend we’re ostriches,” he said.
Aquino the hero
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, one of the sponsors of the RH bill, could not praise the President enough for issuing the certification.
“President Aquino is my hero. He has cut the Gordian knot. I am very enthused with him. This is manifest proof of executive leadership. By one stroke, he has ended the time-wasting prevarication of the last 13 years over the RH bill,” she said.
“Other presidents shirked their duty, but President Aquino rose to meet the challenge, and he has slain the monster,” Santiago said.
She said she was not as confident of the bill’s approval by the Senate and the House before the certification. But the presidential action ensures the bill’s passage, Santiago said.
“I would not have been able to say that categorically. Because you see during the period of amendments, sometimes you would win and sometimes you would lose. Sometimes, we have as big as a majority of 11 and most recently our majority was only 9,” Santiago said.
With the three-day waiting period removed, the senators can proceed immediately to the third and final reading after closing the period of the second reading, she said.
However, anti-RH Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said the certification would not affect the position of the senators on the controversial measure.
Most of them have already made up their minds on whether to support the RH bill, he said.
“Usually, the certification as urgent means just the removal of the three-day rule. That’s just it. It doesn’t affect the bill,” Sotto said in a telephone interview.
Sotto also questioned the President’s basis for certifying the RH bill.
“It’s the bill that’s dividing the country that got certified as urgent. Why not the [freedom of information] bill?” he said in a statement.
Icing on the cake
Sen. Ralph Recto, a member of the Liberal Party that many have perceived to be anti-RH bill because of the tenor of his interpellation and the amendments he proposed, said he was now inclined to support the Senate version of the bill.
“Thirty of my 38 amendments were accepted. The Senate version is very different from that of the House and I welcome it,” Recto said.
“I think the Senate version is in-between. It is not extreme on either side. I’m very happy with the Senate version and I’m inclined to support the Senate version,” he said.
Sen. Pia Cayetano, a coauthor who does most of the defending of the RH bill on the Senate floor, was happy with the development from Malacañang.
“With the all-women bloc in the Senate, namely Senators Miriam, Loren [Legarda] and I, and all the men who have firmly stood beside us, definitely, President Noy’s certification is the sweet icing on the cake that makes all the stress that we had to go through worthwhile,” Cayetano said in a statement.
House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II said the presidential certification “totally changes the complexion of the bill.”
“As for the doubting Thomases of the Liberal Party in the House, it sends a very clear and unmistakable message to its members as to the stand of its party leaders that we should support its passage,” he said. With a report from Christian Esguerra