PRESIDENT Benigno Aquino III is not about to modify his stance on informed family planning, but he sought yesterday to calm the raging debate between his administration and officials of the Catholic Church over the adoption of a reproductive health (RH) framework for the country.
In a move that may appease opponents of the RH measures now pending in both chambers of Congress, the President acknowledged that “the state is not empowered by any law to dictate upon any couple how they should plan their family.” But he pointed out that the government “has an obligation to educate all of its citizens as to their choices.”
“I haven’t seen the new RH bill pending in the House, but my stand has not changed,” he told reporters in an ambush interview at the Baseco Compound in Tondo, Manila.
The President said he had a dialogue on Friday with a number of Catholic bishops to tackle the issue now roiling society in general. He did not name the bishops he had met with, but said a bigger gathering was in the works.
He added that he was open to meeting “as many [bishops] as possible” to resolve the controversy.
Bishop Nereo Odchimar, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), invited RH bill advocates – who have become critics of the Church – to a dialogue.
“We will have a dialogue so there would be a consensus on what we will do on the matter,” Aquino said.
‘Blowing up the issue’
The President criticized the media for purportedly creating the impression that his administration was clashing with leaders of the Catholic Church, whose members, including himself, comprise the majority of Filipinos.
“It seems that you’re just blowing up the issue,” he said, addressing reporters. “Yesterday [Friday], we had a dialogue and we set another dialogue with some bishops. [Giving couples an informed choice on family planning] is a position that I’ve had since the [election] campaign.”
Odchimar earlier drew protests from RH advocates for supposedly warning that the President risked excommunication if he pushed the promotion of contraceptives.
In response, Malacañang issued the reminder that Mr. Aquino was the President, not only of Catholics, but of members of other religions as well. “He has to be above faith,” his spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said.
Odchimar and the CBCP later said the purported threat to excommunicate Mr. Aquino was a “miscommunication.”
While excommunication is a “possibility” in the context of abortion, it is “not a proximate possibility” in the present discussion on the proposed RH measures in Congress, Odchimar said.
The Philippine Medical Association (PMA) through its president, Dr. Oscar Tinio, called for a dialogue between the government and the CBCP on the issue.
Tinio said talk of civil disobedience or insinuations about “many groups who dislike the President” were counterproductive.
He said medical practitioners welcomed Odchimar’s statement that the CBCP’s initial approach on the RH bill would be in the spirit of dialogue and not of confrontation.
“The reproductive health issue impacts various sectors of our society, including medical doctors who are members of the PMA,” Tinio said in a statement.
“As a stakeholder in the delivery of health services in the country, the PMA is appealing that an immediate dialogue be initiated between the Church and government for the greater interest of the nation,” he said.
Tinio also said the PMA was willing to lend its medical and scientific expertise on reproductive health if this would help resolve differences.
Speaking with reporters at Quiapo Church in Manila, Pampanga Archbishop Paciano Aniceto called on Aquino to follow the example of his mother, the revered late President Corazon Aquino, on the issue of reproductive health.
“Our President should emulate his mother ... There is hope that [he] will listen. His mother and the bishops were close. We say his mother was very saintly. She listened to the Church. I think he will give importance and value to that,” Aniceto said.
“He’s the son of a good mother and father,” the archbishop said.
Also, Aniceto said, it was not just Catholics who were against artificial contraceptives but also Muslims and evangelical Protestants.
When asked how he would grade the President, Aniceto said: “Well, I think he’s trying his best. Let us give him the chance to really fulfill his promises.”
Aniceto was at Quiapo Church to celebrate a Mass on the culmination of the Church’s Week of the Laity, which focused on prolife issues.
Around 1,000 Catholics opposed to the use of artificial contraception took part in a procession around the church. They held up banners as well as placards bearing pictures of babies and fetuses.
The banners bore such messages as “Contraception is part of globalization” and “Put funds for contraception [in] education and health services.”
RP last prolife country
Aniceto said that the Philippines was the “last bastion” of the “culture of life,” and that the Church would “awaken” its flock – which he described as a “sleeping giant” – for it not to fall.
“The Church will stick to its original mission. We will keep on preaching the truth and listen to the sign of the times that it is time for all Catholics to unite .... If you threaten that sleeping giant, I’m sure something positive will happen to protect our values and principles,” the archbishop said, adding:
“The Church [in the Philippines] for the past 400 years has a treasure that it has protected in each century, and we will not allow that to disappear because the Philippines is the last prolife country, the last bastion of the civilization of life and gospel values.”
Aniceto acknowledged that, as Malacañang had said, Mr. Aquino was the President of all Filipinos, but added that the majority that elected him was Catholic.
“It is true, but it is the Catholics who made the President because the Catholics have the largest vote. There is no Catholic party but there is a Catholic vote,” he said.
The archbishop added, however, that this did not mean that Aquino should be beholden to Catholics: “He is the President of the whole country and he represents the vision of the whole Philippines, so, of course, [he] should respect the sentiments, convictions and religious beliefs of the majority because that is what he represents.”
Aniceto added: “It is still early. Let us give him a chance. He is knowledgeable. He has many advisers, so I’m sure he will not disregard the majority. He’s also sensitive to the sentiments and values, cultural and religious beliefs of the majority.
“The final decision is his, and we will respect that.”
Arroyo et al. support
The Church appears to have found an ally in former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Aniceto said Arroyo, now a lawmaker from Pampanga, as well the province’s three other representatives, had expressed to him their opposition to the RH bill.
He said Arroyo had also co-authored a measure to “protect the life of the unborn.”
“She’s the coauthor of House Bill No. 13, which is against the RH bill. The former President listened to the Church and she followed [its] teaching, and I do believe that she will continue the same stand and the same advocacy,” he said.
But Aniceto said the Church was finding it “harder” now to convince Congress to scrap the RH bill after successfully lobbying against it in the last Congress.
He said that apart from the “money being given by pharmaceuticals,” the apparent decision of the Liberal Party in Congress to back the RH bill was proving to be more difficult to surmount.
“It’s harder ... Of course this is political and lawmakers will ally themselves with whoever holds the government funding. Otherwise, they will not have appropriations for their projects,” Aniceto said.
But he said the bishops were now talking to their congressmen to try to win them over to the Church’s side.
“Most of them are Catholics, so we will engage them in a dialogue. If every bishop will talk to his congressman and senator, we will be successful, like in the last Congress. But it is harder [this time],” he said. With a report from Cynthia D. Balana