SC: When does life begin?

Question dominates hearing on RH law

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PRO-RH LAW Proponents of the RH law gather in front of Supreme Court on Tuesday. The proponents display portraits of poor children. NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

The age-old debate on when life begins unfolded in the Supreme Court on Tuesday at the start of a hearing on the constitutionality of the reproductive health (RH) law.

Justices asked petitioners against the now suspended law to explain their position that life begins with the union of the egg and the sperm and that this was why they wanted the court to stop the implementation of the measure that would allow the distribution of contraceptives.

The petitioners held that hormonal contraceptives specifically were abortifacients.

Lawyer Concepcion Noche found herself defending the position of the anti-RH petitioners that conception began in fertilization as against the contention of pro-RH advocates that life began when the fertilized egg embeded itself in the uterus of a woman.

But this early, some justices led by Antonio Carpio and Marvic Leonen expressed skepticism on the competence of the court to rule on the constitutionality of the RH law.

“It is now a question of when does conception occur—the time of fertilization or upon the implantation from the walls of the uterus. So, you are asking the 15 members of this court, none of whom are doctors, to decide when conception happens?” Carpio asked Noche, the first speaker in Tuesday’s proceedings.

Leonen said that the petitioners were giving an “awesome” responsibility to the magistrates to make such a determination, and not the 24 senators, the 200 members of Congress and the President who were elected, and in the process “making us a super-agency.”

Theological questions

Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno said the high court was not there to answer “metaphysical” and “theological” questions but to balance the interests of the unborn child with other Constitutional values and objectives.

Sereno said the petitioners had put the high court whose members were not elected in a difficult position, especially because the Constitution did not define conception as fertilization.

Sereno, Carpio and Leonen were among five justices who voted against the issuance of the status quo ante order on the law’s implementation for 120 days on March 19.

The first hearing lasted five hours and heard mainly those opposing the legislation. The proceedings will resume on July 23.

Population control

As proponents and opponents of the RH law noisily held their separate programs outside the Supreme Court, the oral arguments kicked off with former Sen. Francisco Tatad contending that the RH law had not only divided the nation but threatened to divide the nation further.

Tatad is one of 15 petitioners challenging the law, which mandates the state to provide the poor with reproductive health services, including access to contraceptives and sex education to schoolchildren.

“The RH law is neither a responsible parenthood nor health measure but a planned parenthood and population control measure,” said Tatad, who was tasked to give the opening statement of the anti-RH petitioners.

The law imposes population control through government-mandated contraception and, among others, redefines the purpose of marriage and denies the basic right of couples to procreate on their own free will, he said.

By being a provider of contraceptives, Tatad said, the Aquino administration has violated not only the Constitution but also international laws such as the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, which the country ratified in 1950.

When life begins

Noche maintained that life began with the union of the sperm and the egg and that preventing this union through contraceptives violates the right of the unborn to life.

“The fertilized ovum has life and is human,” she said. IUDs and hormonal contraceptives are abortifacient and vasectomy is mutilation, she added.

Likewise, she noted that Section 12 Article 2 of the 1987 Constitution guaranteed that Congress and the Supreme Court would not pass any proabortion legislation and decisions.

“Let the voice of the unborn be heard in the august halls of the tribunal. Let their voice be you,” Noche said.

On Carpio’s questioning, Noche maintained that records of the 1986 Constitutional Commission were very clear that conception meant fertilization.

She also held that the intent of the commission was not to leave to Congress the question of when life begins.

Both Leonen and Sereno pointed out to Noche that the Constitution did not mention fertilized ovum but conception and what it meant, but Noche said the definition of conception was settled by the constitutional commission.

Protection of life

Leonen said the court was “not a political organ but a court of law.”

“We read what is produced, look at facts and the law and make it harmonious with the law,” he said.

Leonen asked Noche what was wrong if the state made available contraceptives to the public. Noche replied that her primary focus was “preserving and protecting the life of the unborn from the moment it exists.”

She said the state failed to provide “informed consent” to the people on available choices, adding that it was the government, not the people, who was making the choices for them.

Leonen also asked whether the issue on the RH law was “justiceable” when there was no actual controversy on the law. But Noche cited two rulings where she said that the mere enactment of a bill was a subject of court action.

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