Catholic bishops welcomed the decision of the Supreme Court on Tuesday to suspend for 120 days the implementation of the controversial reproductive health (RH) law in order to hear 10 Church-backed petitions contesting its constitutionality.
Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes said newly installed Pope Francis would be “very happy” with the tribunal’s order, pointing out that the former archbishop of Buenos Aires was against the distribution of free contraceptives in Argentina.
“That’s exactly the same as the RH law,” Bastes said. “I hope that in the end, that law will be abolished. I’m happy. To the lay people, let us continue our campaign against the RH law, particularly in the coming elections in May.”
Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te told reporters the tribunal voted 10-5 to issue the four-month freeze order against the law, which requires government health centers to hand out free condoms and schools to teach sex education.
Te did not comment on the merits of the case, saying only the court in an en banc session had issued the suspension to allow opponents of the law time to present their oral arguments on June 18.
The 10 who voted for the freeze—and a status quo ante—were Justices Martin Villarama, Teresita de Castro, Jose Perez, Diosdado Peralta, Presbitero Velasco, Bienvenido Reyes, Arturo Brion, Lucas Bersamin, Roberto Abad and Jose Mendoza.
Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Justices Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen dissented.
“Praise the Lord. God is on our side. Our struggle against the RH law is correct,” Digos Bishop Guillermo Afable told Church-run Radio Veritas.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Malacañang would respect the court’s resolution.
“We are confident that the government will be able to defend the merits of the responsible parenthood law,” Lacierda said in a text message.
Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang said the court’s move could affect the country’s efforts to comply with the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
“This law was supposed to bring down maternal mortality. Ultimately, it will bring down levels of poverty in combination with other programs that we have,” he said.
“If we were able to wait for 14 years, then we are willing to wait some more but we hope it won’t be that long again because these are for our women,” Health Assistant Secretary Eric Tayag said, referring to the period the population control bill had languished in Congress.
President Aquino’s intervention led to the passage of the long-pending bill late last year. Aquino signed the measure into law without fanfare last December amid a determined effort by the Church to contest it every step of the way.
The Department of Health had earlier planned to begin implementation of the law on Easter Sunday, but Tayag said that even if the court did not intervene the program could not be launched because the rules and regulations to carry it out had not been hammered out.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, principal author of the RH law, said in a statement he believed that the court would eventually uphold the measure, pointing out that it did not “defile” the right to life enshrined in the Constitution.
“The RH law does not legalize abortion. In fact, it acknowledges that abortion is illegal and punishable and is not a family planning option or method,” he said.
“The accusation that the RH law is offensive to religious freedom is a patent aberration. The act is replete with provisions upholding freedom of religion and respecting religious convictions. The guarantee of freedom of informed choice is an assurance that no one would be compelled to violate the tenets of his religion or defy his religious convictions against his free will and own discernment of his faith,” Lagman said.
More mothers dying
Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, coauthor of the law, warned: “Every day of delay means more mothers dying every day, more children being orphaned, and many Filipino families being deprived of their choice to have a better quality of life.”
Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat said he was disappointed. “Why wait until June for oral arguments to be heard when this has been one of the most debated laws in history of Congress? It could have been timed to hit pro-RH legislators in our (midterm election) campaign,” Baguilat said.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan said in a text message: “That’s good. The Supreme Court is showing signs of life.”
Sen. Tito Sotto, who mounted a spirited opposition to the law when it was being debated in the Senate, said that the court “knows what is best for the country.”
“Let them decide,” he said, reiterating his contention in three privilege speeches that the RH law “is against our prolife Constitution.”
Sen. Jinggoy Estrada described the court order as a “temporary victory for the Church and the anti-RH group.”
Sen. Francis Escudero said that while he disagreed with the ruling, “we should follow and respect it.”
‘The Lord is moving’
Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez thanked God that the RH law was stopped, pointing out that the government had planned to fully implement it starting on Easter Sunday.
“The hand of the Lord is moving in the hearts of Supreme Court justices,” he said.
Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, urged the faithful to be vigilant, saying the court order was just a “temporary victory.”
“This just means that we should be more active against the RH law,” Castro said. “This is also a challenge to voters to elect candidates who support life and the family. The high court heard our prayers that any law that is questionable based on our Constitution should not be implemented.”
“This is a victory for the truth. We thank God for inspiring the justices to vote against the RH Law,” Fr. Amadeo Alvero, spokesman of the archdiocese of Palo, said in a text message.
“This has been our prayer that people may realize the evil of RH Law. It has been heard. And we are praying and hoping that it be soon declared as illegal,” he added.—With reports from Christine O. Avendaño, Michael Lim Ubac, Leila B. Salaverria and Cathy Yamsuan; and Joey A. Gabieta, Inquirer Visayas