SC stops RH for 120 days

By Edu Punay (The Philippine Star) | Updated March 20, 2013 – 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) temporarily stopped the executive branch yesterday from implementing the controversial Republic Act No. 10354 or the Reproductive Health (RH) Law.

Justices voted 10-5 to issue a status quo ante order enjoining the Palace and concerned agencies from implementing the law.

The order will be in effect for 120 days. Oral arguments on the consolidated petitions will be on June 18.

Despite strong opposition from the Catholic Church, which espouses only natural family planning methods, Congress passed the RH law last Dec. 19. President Aquino signed the law two days later.

The Department of Health (DOH) approved the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) for the law last week. It was scheduled for implementation beginning March 31.

Catholic leaders consider the law an attack on the Church’s core values. The government and even certain Catholic groups say it will help couples choose to space childbirth, plan the size of their  families and promote women’s reproductive health.

The Philippines has a population of 94 million and has one of the highest birth rates in Asia.

Those who voted for the issuance of the SC order were Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo-De Castro, Arturo Brion,

Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Roberto Abad, Martin Villarama Jr., Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza, and Bienvenido Reyes, according to SC spokesman Theodore Te.

On the other hand, Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno dissented together with Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justices Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen.

Sereno, Bernabe and Leonen are appointees of President Aquino.

Irreparable violations

A member of the high court explained to The STAR that majority of the justices saw the need to issue the order “so as to prevent irreparable violations of constitutional rights raised in the petitions, especially if in the end these are established.”

The magistrate pointed out that the order is “preliminary” and the possibility of the high court ruling in favor of the legality of the law still remains.

The SQA order was directed at Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa Jr., Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Education Secretary Armin Luistro, Health Secretary Enrique Ona and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, who were all named respondents in the case.

The consolidated petitions were filed as early as January by couple James and Lovely-Ann Imbong, non-profit group Alliance for the Family

Foundation Philippines Inc. (ALFI), Serve Life Cagayan de Oro City, Task Force for Family and Life Visayas Inc., lawyer Expedito Bugarin,

Eduardo Olaguer of the Catholic Xybrspace Apostolate of the Philippines, former Sen. Francisco “Kit” Tatad and his wife Ma. Fenny

and a group of doctors represented by lawyer Howard Calleja.

The petitioners argued that the RH law “negates and frustrates the fundamental ideals and aspirations of the sovereign Filipino people

as enshrined in the Constitution.”

They cited Article II Section 12 of the Constitution, which states: “The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution. It shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception. The natural and primary right and duty of parents in the rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and the

development of moral character shall receive the support of government.”

Petitioners said at least 11 provisions in RA 10354, which allow couples to choose to suppress life, violate this constitutional provision.

They added that the new law violates constitutional freedom of religion and expression of those who will continue to oppose it and also creates doubtful or spurious rights called reproductive health rights.

Former Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros, an administration senatorial candidate, sought intervention to the case also last January and asked the high court to dismiss six petitions questioning the constitutionality of the RH Law.

Gov’t to defend law

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said they will observe the SQA order issued by the SC but they are confident that the government will be able to defend the merits of the RH Law.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. also said the House of Representatives will respect the order but he remains optimistic that the matter will be resolved soon.

“This (order) is well within the high court’s power and just a temporary setback,” Belmonte said in a statement. “I am hopeful the main issues will be deliberated on so that these can be resolved as soon as possible.”

Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, the principal author of the RH measure in the House, described the order as only a temporary delay to enable the SC to fully assess the merits and demerits of the pending petitions challenging the law.

“I firmly believe that eventually the constitutionality of the RH Law will be sustained,” Lagman said in a statement.

“The RH advocates had prevailed in the legislative and executive departments, and they will likewise triumph in the high court,” he said.

He said the law is constitutional as the right to life is not defiled, and the right to health not infringed.

Religious freedom is upheld, and parental role in the rearing of the youth is supported by the state under the law, Lagman said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health (DOH) said they have not received a copy of the order.

“We are calm about it because we have been monitoring the activities of the RH Law opponents,” said DOH Assistant Secretary Eric Tayag, chair of the technical working group that drafted the IRR of the law.

Tayag said the DOH was supposed to publish the IRR anytime now had the SQA order not been issued.

“The publication will be delayed once again. But if we were able to wait for 14 years before the law was enacted, why can’t we wait again? We just hope it won’t take that long,” Tayag said.

“When we were drafting the IRR, we also checked all related laws in the Constitution. We also had three public consultations because we don’t want an IRR that will not be beneficial to women. This is supposed to be our gift to women this Women’s Month,” he said.

Under the IRR, local government units are required to promote both the artificial and natural methods of family planning. This means that banning contraceptives shall be prohibited.

The IRR considers health professionals who cannot deliver reproductive health care services or information because of their religious beliefs as “conscientious objectors,” who will not be penalized but have to refer clients to other health care facilities.

The guidelines also stated that only the modern family planning methods registered with the Food and Drug Administration are “safe, effective, non-abortifacient and legal.”

SC justices pressured?

Reproductive health advocates slammed the SC decision to stop the implementation of the RH Law.

In a phone interview, Philippine Legislators Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD) executive director Romeo Dongeto said they did not expect the ruling.

“This is an affront to the intention of our lawmakers to improve maternal and reproductive health of Filipino women,” Dongeto said.

“The question is, ‘Did the SC justices succumb to the pressure of the Catholic Church?’” he said.

As one of the strong supporters of the RH Law, Dongeto said the PLCPD believes all issues raised against the measure including medical, scientific and moral questions, have been addressed.

Clara Rita Padila, executive director of EnGenderRights, also denounced the SC ruling.

“It’s unfortunate that the SC issued a 120-day status quo ante order against the RH Law. We badly need the law to reduce unintended pregnancies and maternal mortalities in the country,” Padilla said.

“In our interviews with poor women in Manila last November, we found 65 percent of them were candidates for ligation, meaning, they have way surpassed their desired number of children,” she said.

Padilla said 11 Filipino mothers die from pregnancy and childbirth complications every day.

TRO welcomed

On the other hand, Sen. Vicente Sotto III, who opposed the RH measure, yesterday welcomed the SC order, saying the Supreme Court knows what’s best for the country.

Zambales Rep. Mitos Magsaysay added that the SC might have found some merit in the petitions against the RH Law.

“The high court must have thought that there are indeed provisions in the law that are illegal or in conflict with existing laws and the Constitution. I strongly suggest that its authors make the necessary amendments or repeal it outright,” Magsaysay said in a telephone interview.

Sorsogon Bishop Arturo Bastes said that the issuance of an SQA order was an indication that the magistrates were listening to the objections of the Catholic Church.

He, however, said the people should not be complacent since their struggle is not yet over and the RH Law can still be implemented.

Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission on Family and Life executive secretary Fr. Melvin Castro said that the SC has heard their prayers and they were pleased to know this even if it was just a temporary victory.

He also said this serves as a challenge to the voters to elect candidates who give importance to life and family.

United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) senatorial candidate Nancy Binay, for her part, said the high tribunal’s decision will give advocates and opponents of the RH Law the opportunity to air their positions.– With Sheila Crisostomo, Jose Rodel Clapano, Delon Porcalla, Evelyn Macairan, Paolo Romero, Helen Flores, Christina Mendez, AP