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MANILA, Philippines - (UPDATE 6:18PM) Thousands of Catholics, called out by their bishops, gathered at the EDSA Shrine at the center of Metro Manila on Saturday afternoon, in a show of force ahead of a crucial congressional vote on the controversial Reproductive Health Bill.
Predominantly wearing red to express opposition to the RH Bill, the protesters rallied around the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), which has spearheaded opposition to the proposed law over the past years.
Among the prominent personalities flanking Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle on stage were senators Vicente Sotto III and Gregorio Honasan.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Rep. Mitos Magsaysay also attended the gatherinng, though none of the imcumbent lawmakers addressed the crowd.
Don't use rally turnout as vote's basis - prelate
The turnout of the prayer rally staged by the Catholic Church should not serve as a basis for solons in voting on the controversial Reproductive Health Bill, church officials said, as people gathered to denounce the bill despite bad weather, transforming the area around EDSA Shrine into a sea of umbrellas.
Bishop Gabriel Reyes, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said legislators should vote on the bill based on their conscience and not because of the turnout of the church-backed prayer rally. The police estimated the Saturday crowd at 10,000 as of 5 p.m.
“It is not the size of the crowd. Our congressmen are also thinking about their vote, on what would be good for the people. They should vote on what is right. It is not always the case that the [majority] who agree on a position are always right,” said Reyes.
Reyes said solons should not consider the rally as a “make or break” factor in casting their vote on Tuesday, on whether debates on the bill should proceed or be terminated.
Twelve other prayer rallies are being simultaneously held in different parts of the country, according to Reyes.
While the Church will not sanction legislators who vote in favor of the bill, the bishops will however “remember who they are,” Reyes said.
The Church will come up with guidelines in time for the 2013 midterm elections that will urge the faithful to vote for candidates who are pro-life and those who oppose the divorce and the same-sex marriage bills.
Young Catholics ‘detached’
Lingayen-Dagupan Archbishop Socrates Villages acknowledged that many young Catholics are somehow detached from the church.
“I know many of you my dear youth don’t believe in the church anymore. You think the church did not understand, that the church is autistic, may sariling mundo [isolated in its own world]. [You think] the bishops are not listening. The bishops are not aware of what majority of the people undergo,” said Villages, who is also CBCP vice president. His statement was read by Henrietta De Villa, the former Philippine ambassador to the Vatican.
Saying that contraception is “corruption,” Villages said enacting a reproductive health law would only pressure the government to use taxpayers’ money to distribute contraceptive pills.
“Fight contraception or we perish as a godly nation. Youth of the Philippines, because I love you, I will fight contraception. This battle is for you and I fight for the love of you,” said Villegas.
Enrile, Sotto bill's critics
Last Sunday, Enrile said in a radio interview that he would not tolerate any railroading of the bill in the Senate. Enrile and Majority Leader Sotto III are among the critics of the bill, which they said would simply put billions in taxpayer funds into the hands of major pharmaceuticals making birth-control devices and pills, without necessarily addressing other problems that advocates dump at the doorstep of the anti-RH bill groups.
In recent days, some groups have flagged the high rate of maternal deaths and the spike in HIV-AIDS cases, which some quarters pinned on the Catholic church’s ban on condom use.
The anti-RH bloc says maternal deaths are a result of a lack of resources like non-deployment of trained midwives and small funding for health centers. As for HIV-AIDS, the bill’s critics noted the spike was traced by experts to growing cases of male-to-male transmission, a practice hardly affected by whether or not the Church frowns on condoms anyway.
“That [RH bill] has a big impact on our society. It involves a lot of this--- we respect their position but they should respect our position. Marami pang tatanungin sa period of amendments,” Enrile said.
Contentious vote on August 7
The RH Bill is up for a contentious vote at the House of Representatives on August 7. The vote will determine whether or not debates for amendments for the bill as proposed will be allowed to continue.
President Aquino has hedged on his support for any initiative on "reproductive health", as the term has been framed by the Catholic hierarchy as "anti-life" and "pro-abortion", notwithstanding reminders from RH advocates that abortion is banned under the Constitution.
RH Bill champions are pushing for a law to help control the Phiiippines' population growth rate, which is one of the fastest in Asia. Reproductive Health is framed by its supporters as matter of rights, welfare, and equal access to services and products that can better give people - poor families, especially - more control over family size. It is also being held up as a crucial socio-economic intervention, something that can help the national economy keep up with its population growth.
President Aquino has tried to use the term "responsible parenthood" to tread a middle ground. As much as the phrase was loudly cheered at his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA), however, it has also caused dismay. The Church saw it as pandering to the RH lobby, while that lobby still associates the term with the Church's own handle for shooting down all discussions concerning "family planning." With reports by Cher Jimenez, Karl John Reyes, InterAksyon.com