Like Batman in the hit movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is emerging from the pits to help defuse fears of a population bomb.
Seven of Arroyo’s allies had withdrawn as authors of the controversial reproductive health (RH) bill that the Catholic Church vehemently opposes.
As such, the Pampanga representative has become the darling of the Church hierarchy, some of whose prelates were gifted with SUVs when she was the President but unfortunately had to give them up following a Senate inquiry.
Wearing a neck brace and lumbar support, Arroyo showed up for the first time in a year—the past eight months under hospital arrest on election sabotage charges—in the House on Tuesday.
The former President, who is being treated for a rare neck ailment, described her appearance there as a “dry run” for the crucial vote on August 7 on the RH bill. She said she would vote against the Malacañang-backed measure.
“This is an issue that she feels strongly about as a devout Catholic, although she never used her term in the presidency to push things her way,” House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez said Wednesday. “But now, as a member of Congress, she will be free to vote [with] her heart and her mind.”
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) announced Wednesday that it was opening its doors to Arroyo at a Mass prayer rally it was leading against the RH bill on Saturday at the Edsa Shrine.
“All anti-RH people are welcome to join us on Saturday,” said Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.
“Regardless of the political party or affiliation, every single vote versus the RH bill is welcome for us,” he said in a phone interview.
Suarez also announced yesterday that he and six other lawmakers had withdrawn as coauthors of House Bill No. 4244, which essentially seeks to bring down the country’s population growth rate. The turnaround of the seven, brings to 20 the number of congressmen opposing the bill.
Turning water into wine
The CBCP earlier expressed confidence that as many as 140 congressmen were opposed to the RH bill, with only 49 in favor of the measure.
Representative Edcel Lagman, chief architect of HB 4244, ridiculed the CBCP position, saying “Catholic bishops extrapolate the votes against the RH bill like turning water into wine.”
“The bishops forget that the miracle of life should not result in the death of the mother, and the quality of life of children must be enhanced by empowering parents, couples and women to freely and responsibly determine the number and spacing of their children,” he said in a statement.
Lagman insisted that “RH authors and advocates have the numbers inside and outside the Congress.”
“Legislators are fully aware of the realities on the ground about gripping mass poverty spawned by an inordinately huge population growth rate because couples and women in the marginalized sectors do not have access to correct reproductive health information and effective supplies and services,” he said.
A matter of conscience
The August 7 vote would decide if interpellation should be closed and the process of approval of the bill be moved forward. Some 20 more members will still question authors of HB 4244 on the floor. In the Senate, Senator Pia Cayetano complained on Tuesday that the leadership had not moved to end debates on the measure, putting it in limbo.
“Changing your mind is no joke,” Suarez said. He said that “conscience” played a role in the minority members’ reversal of position.
Suarez and his six colleagues formally informed Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. of their decision in a letter dated July 30. Belmonte’s office officially received the letter Wednesday and Suarez gave a copy to reporters.
It carried the signatures of Representatives Suarez, Orlando Fua (Siquijor), Reena Concepcion Obillo (Una Ang Pamilya), Mohammed Hussein Pangandaman (Lanao del Sur), Nasser Pangandaman (AA Kasosyo), Elmer Panotes (Camarines Norte) and Pastor Alcover Jr. (Anad).
Isabela Representative Rodolfo Albano Jr., also part of the 28-member minority and a supporter of the RH bill, on Wednesday said he was now rethinking his position. He admitted that he was “convinced by the reasoning and interpellation” done by Deputy Minority Leader Milagros Magsaysay on the bill.
“I’m looking at it conscientiously and [I will] come out with a [final] decision,” he said in a joint press conference with Suarez.
Suarez and his six colleagues arrived at their decision to abandon the RH measure following a caucus on Monday.
“We’re talking about human life here. It’s not taxation. It’s not about economics or boundaries or dispute with other nations, treaties,” he recalled telling the group. “No, we’re talking of human life.”
Fears of marching order
Suarez said he was hoping that congressmen would vote on the move as a matter of “conscience.”
He said: “There should be no marching order from the administration because honestly, I’ll be scared if the administration issues a marching order.”
Suarez said he himself was convinced to reject the RH bill after being exposed to other countries that had adopted a similar measure to control their population growth. Those countries, he said, were saddled with problems of an insufficient labor force because the death rate was now greater than the number of children being born.
“Our component is the people—they’re our asset. Yet we will control [population growth]?” he argued. “That’s the reason why I had second thoughts and [withdrew] my support [for the RH bill].”
But unlike other opponents of the RH bill, Suarez was in favor of including in the Department of Health’s budget for next year a program providing free vasectomy and ligation.
Warning on pork
Also on Wednesday, CBCP president and Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma warned Malacañang against withholding congressional pork barrel allocations of lawmakers who would take the Church’s stand against the controversial family planning measure.
Over Church-run Radio Veritas, Palma said the government cannot use as leverage the allocations to sway Congress into passing the RH measure.
“It has no reason to hold lawmakers’ allocations in the countryside development fund because that belongs to them, that belongs to the people,” said Palma.
But Palma admitted that these lawmakers could suddenly change their decision if the government would dangle the pork barrel in exchange for their votes to pass the bill.
“It could change their decision but our legislators should not be afraid because we know that the government could not forever withhold what belongs to the people,” Palma said.
Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles also appealed to legislators to vote according to their conscience.
“Just consider the future of your children and grandchildren … look at what’s happening to many countries in the West, they are becoming weak [so] I appeal to the congressmen [for them] to see the reality,” said Arguelles, vice chair of the CBCP Episcopal Commission on Family and Life.