The recently signed Reproductive Health Bill (RH Bill), promising to greatly expand contraceptive access in the Philippines, was a victory almost 15 years in the making. For more than five years, I worked with Catholics for Reproductive Health, a group central to the fight against those other Catholics against RH, otherwise known as the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). The bishops and their allies aren’t celebrating with us that the country’s huge unmet contraceptive need and rising rate of HIV infections may soon be somewhat ameliorated. Instead, they are busy planning the downfall of the legislators who courageously withstood the many statements that “contraception is corruption” and that RH Bill supporters were jeopardizing their standing with the Catholic church. The 80 percent-Catholic populace has already left behind the small opposition that simply will not recognize defeat—proving once more that the institutional church doesn’t understand what Filipinos need, how they think or how to reach them.
Though the CBCP attempts to shepherd its flock to vote according to its anti-reproductive health party line, the truth is, there is no such thing as a Catholic vote in the Philippines. The hierarchy has supported plenty of candidates who were rejected by voters. Others, such as Congresswoman Janette Garin, co-author of the RH Bill, have been elected despite being targeted by local priests and bishops. Promising to defeat pro-RH policymakers in the May election, the bishops issued a statement encouraging Catholics to become politically active. One such lay initiative is Catholic Vote Philippines, which is developing a database comparing politicians’ votes with a version of Catholic doctrine heavily slanted against reproductive health. This is an odd strategy, given that policymakers who helped pass the bill garnered a tremendous amount of positive publicity, in part because they proved stronger than the bishops’ no-holds-barred assault. But the CBCP’s decision to turn up the political pressure seems like more of the same. It also illustrates that the bishops are poor studies of Filipino psychology.
In my country, people love cheering the underdog. By threatening a massive show of force during the May elections, the hierarchy is flexing its political muscles, and citizens are likely to recoil. Everyone knows that the institutional church has a tremendous advantage in its well-developed infrastructure, which can funnel information from the bishops’ conference at the top through the dioceses and into the ears of those parishioners who are forced to listen to politically-slanted pastoral letters read in the place of homilies. The bishops are also no strangers to the media. But what is missing from their didactic statements is the sort of messaging at which the pro-RH movement excels.
The legislators and advocates who made the RH Bill a reality were well served by their admirable restraint throughout many years of often nasty opposition. Avoiding criticism of the church, they appealed to reason and the common good—explaining what, on a practical level, contraception, sexuality education and HIV prevention mean for individuals’ lives. It took much patient effort, but I believe we are at a point now where the majority supports RH—even though that’s not always the viewpoint that registers the loudest in the media. I have friends who, like many Filipinos, have never been to a pro-RH rally and have remained silent throughout the public debate. But these are the people who quietly take me aside to express how much they appreciate what the movement is doing for their daughters’ futures.
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When the bishops showed up at the House of Representatives to “monitor” the RH vote in December, they, too, were silent. But the few feet separating the clergy from the legislators on that day spoke volumes about the difficult-to-discern line between church and state in the Philippines. The bishops expected their presence to be enough; they had made their opinions clear. But legislators voted their consciences and Filipinos won.
Legislators in favor of the bill have support in high places. The current president, Benigno S. Aquino III, has said he is open to dialogue with the hierarchy, but he is an unapologetic backer of the RH Bill and its supporters. Case in point: a tour guide, Carlos Celdran, publicly protested the bishops’ anti-RH campaigning and remains in jail for “offending religious feelings.” Aquino has said that Celdran should be pardoned, and subsequent appeals may end up testing civil and ecclesiastical readings of the incident.
The seven court cases currently trying to overturn the RH Bill will also be a test, but not of the mettle of pro-RH supporters in the legislature and beyond. Far from resting on their victory, advocates like Catholics for RH will need to ensure there is adequate legal representation defending the bill’s principles. In preparation for the next election, reproductive health supporters will need to show the policymakers who courageously stood up to the hierarchy and voted for the bill that they can still count on their supporters, no matter how much heat the bishops bring down. And if the antics before, during and after the RH vote are any indication, that firestorm may be severe.
Nevertheless, people in the Philippines have taken a good look around since bill’s passage, and threats of a post-contraceptive hell on earth have not come to pass. The bishops’ latest campaign to unseat legislators is a sign that the hierarchy is trying to come back from behind, but they still lack the compelling appeal of the real underdogs—the poorest and most vulnerable Filipinos who can now get what they need to plan their families.
For the latest on the implementation of the RH Law, read The Philippine Star: Still no halt order from SC on RH Law.