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MANILA, Philippines -- With leaders of the House of Representatives determined to have the chamber vote on whether or not to end plenary debates on the Reproductive Health bill on August 7, proponents and opponents of the measure are scrambling to ensure they have the numbers for what some lawmakers say could be a preview on the controversial measure’s fate.
If the House votes to end the debates, the chamber will proceed to the period of amendments and vote again for the measure on second and third reading.
Earlier, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines president Jose Palma said that 140 of the House’s 285 members, or almost half, would reject the RH bill, and only 49 would vote for it.
The Catholic church has aggressively opposed the measure, which it says promotes immorality and abortion.
But Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, one of the bill’s main authors, said Palma’s forecast “mocks the independence and individual consciences of congresspersons whose constituents overwhelming favor the enactment of the RH bill as documented by empirical and periodic surveys.”
“The Congress cannot be threatened to legislate the dogma of the dominant church because this would violate the constitutional ban on non-establishment of a State religion or church and the prohibition of using public funds for religious purposes,” he said.
Lagman and other advocates of the bill in the House continue to believe they can muster enough votes to pass House Bill 4244 or the Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population Development Act, which espouses the use of both artificial and natural means of family planning, sex education at an appropriate age, and maternal and child care.
“Let me say that we have a 20-vote edge, but we know it will increase with the President’s pitch,” another RH supporter, Ifugao Representative Teodoro Baguilat Jr. said.
President Benigno Aquino III has been pushing for the bill’s passage.
Iloilo Representative Janet Garin said the few days before August 7 would be “very crucial” as anti-RH forces are expected to “exert pressure” on the lawmakers.
“Many are saying they are feeling the pressure. We feel that the Catholic church is moving. When the lawmakers go to their districts, you can expect that somebody will talk to them, and raise matters such as the upcoming elections, in making up their decision on the RH bill,” Garin said in a phone interview.
Gabriela party-list Representative Luz Ilagan admitted the numbers are “very fluid” but added they are continuously talking to their colleagues, especially those who remain undecided.
“Many admit the pressure from the church, while others who have taken the line of least resistance have decided to be just absent during the voting,” she said.
“The ball is now in the President’s court, especially since the minority decision has reduced the struggle to a party stand,” she added, referring to the announcement of Minority Leader Danilo Suarez that about eight of the 28-member bloc have withdrawn support for the bill.
The minority is expected to present the final list of those who will no longer support the measure.
Ilagan observed that the change of heart of the minority might have to do with the return of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, now second district representative of Pampanga.
Arroyo, who is out on bail after eight months in hospital detention for the electoral sabotage case filed against her by the Commission on Elections, attended Thursday’s session and said she would vote against the RH bill.
“The RH vote should not depend on personalities, but on the core issues of the bill,” Ilagan said.
She also urged the Catholic community to actively participate in crafting a national policy on women’s reproductive health “on the framework that full access to healthcare services is a universally recognized right and that population control should not be a panacea to the country’s worsening poverty.”
Baguilat is optimistic undecided lawmakers would eventually support the bill.
“Many of our colleagues who are against the bill are not strongly objecting, they are just afraid of the bishops. But they’ll realize that majority of the people want RH and the President wants this bill passed as he expressed during his State of the Nation Address. Shouldn’t they be (more) afraid of this?” he said.
Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II said they would send text message blasts for House members to attend the August 7 voting.