THE statement of the 14 professors of the Ateneo de Manila University on the pending bill on reproductive health of Congressman Lagman was variously captioned in the media as “defiance of the Church” or “opposition to the bishops”. The reason for their “defiance” or “opposition” is easily gleaned from this, that they are fully aware their acceptance of the bill’s pushing for contraceptives as “essential medicines” as part of the government’s program of population control goes counter to the Church’s ban on artificial contraceptives.
A more benign interpretation of their statement, however, is to look at their position not so much as an act of defiance as a call for further dialogue on the provisions of the bill.
Be that as it may, I can’t help asking what is meant by “the bishops”. For even if it is clear where the Church as an institution stands on the subject of contraception and so one can speak of “opposing” that stand, things are not at all that clear where the bishops are concerned. By this I don’t mean they don’t as a body subscribe to what Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae teaches about artificial contraception. What I am talking about is their actual position on the RH Bill itself and its specific provisions. As of now, they have not yet met to study the Bill’s contents directly to pass judgment on whether to accept or reject it in part or in toto. For as Father Eric Genilo pointed out in an article in the CBCP Monitor in its September 1 issue, the Bill is not totally negative as far as Catholics are concerned—and in a way this was what the Ateneo professors were saying in their statement. The same Father Genilo thought that the professors, in their appraisal of the Bill, had decided that its good points outweighed the bad—whereas Church people (the vocal ones at least) felt that the bad outweighed the good.
That difference in approach and thinking is precisely the reason for the need to look at the Bill more critically and for dialogue to take place among all members of the Church on it.
The point should be well taken. For in all the furor caused by the Bill so far, it is easy to overlook the fact that it is still in process and has not yet passed into law. In other words, now is the time for all to try looking dispassionately at its provisions to see what should be rejected or modified, what can be accepted as is or further nuanced. As one of the Ateneo professors has said, there are “negotiables” in the Bill as it stands, and this means changes can still be made even before it comes up for a final vote in Congress (where further debate will take place anyway to further strengthen or weaken the Bill as finally worded by Mr. Lagman and his co-sponsors).
Father John Carroll of the Institute on Church and Social Issues offers a suggestion to all concerned with the Bill, and that is for us to distinguish between dialogue, debate and advocacy. The point he makes is that at this time advocacy for or against the Bill seems to be paramount among people concerned in one way or another about it. Dialogue must take place first precisely to see what are our agreements, what our disagreements. We can then debate our disagreements and see if compromises can be made with a view to coming to a final consensus. The kind of debate we hold among ourselves as Church will, I do not doubt, be of great help to the final consideration of the Bill in Congress when it takes place. And we might add, our dialoging, debating, advocating must always be in the context of a rigorous discernment from faith, in faith, for the exercise to be genuinely, thoroughly Christian.
One point that I’m sure will come up in the debate would be this difficulty: If the Bill were to be unchanged from its present form, no modifications whatsoever being made from what will be suggested in the dialogue and debate we speak of here, what will happen to the Bill’s provision that asks for government to make available all forms of contraceptive means, artificial or natural, the former consisting mostly of “essential medicines”, no distinction being made between abortifacient and non-abortifacient medicines? The point is if no such distinction is made now, the Bill, if enacted unmodified, will from the outset be subject to questions about its constitutionality. So Father Joaquin Bernas has been pointing out, since it will in effect be, among other things, a law against the Constitutional ban on abortion. Why wait for that time-and-effort-wasting inevitability and not take steps right now to make the Bill totally in conformity with the Constitution with just a little more judicious give-and-take?
The pros and cons of the Bill aside, there is one little fact mentioned in the Ateneo professors’ statement that should make Church people pause. I am referring to the statistic they cite on the percentages of women who practice some form of birth control. They point out that the contraceptive rate for the whole Philippines is 50.6%, and only 0.2% of it covers natural family planning (NFP) methods. If the figures are true, this only means that we are failing utterly as a Church in our advocating and teaching of NFP in our Family and Life program. This failure is all the more embarrassing in that one of the strongest characteristics of the program has been its strong and long opposition to government efforts at population control. I believe its opposition would be more credible if its success at promoting NFP methods were a bit more something to be proud of.