The RH law decision

 Apr. 12, 2014 at 12:01am

This is the first of three columns on the RH Law decision by the Supreme Court. Today, I will write about the main decision, unanimously agreed by the 15 members of the Court, to dismiss the petitions against the RH Law. On Tuesday, I will discuss the eight provisions declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, with four or five dissents depending on the provision, and the reasoning behind the majority vote on these provisions. Finally, a week from now, I will share the thinking of the Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and Justice Marvic Leonen, the youngest members of the Court, as they dissented from the majority on the unconstitutionality of the eight provisions.

Citing an excerpt on the 2003 decision of Islamic Da’wah Council of the Philippines, Inc. vs., Executive Secretary, affirming the preferred status of freedom of religion as an instrument “designed to protect the broadest possible liberty of conscience, to allow each man to believe as his conscience directs, to profess his beliefs . . . “, the Court, speaking through Justice Jose Mendoza, unanimously declared Republic Act 10354 or the reproductive health (RH) law constitutional but voted to strike down 8 provisions partially or in full.

The polarizing effect of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 or RH law was such that it spurred the filing of fourteen (14) petitions and two (2) petitions-in-intervention, all assailing its constitutionality based on supposed violations of certain rights, including: a) the right to life of the unborn; b) the right to health and the right to protection against hazardous products; c) the right to religious freedom; d) the constitutional provision against involuntary servitude; e) the right to equal protection of the law; f) it is “void-for-vagueness in violation of the right to due process; g) intrudes into the zone of privacy of one’s family; h) violates the constitutional principle of non-delegation of legislative authority, among others.

In ruling against the petitioners, Justice Mendoza wrote: “In general, the Court does not find the RH law as unconstitutional insofar as it seeks to provide access to medically-safe, non-abortifacient, effective, legal, affordable, and quality reproductive health care services, methods, devices, and supplies. The RH Law does not sanction the taking away of life. It does not allow abortion in any shape or form. It only seeks to enhance the population control program of the government by providing information and making non-abortifacient contraceptives more readily available to the public, especially to the poor.”

The Supreme Court also stayed away, rightly in my view, from philosophical and/or scientific questions such as when life actually begins. It said: “Majority of the members of the Court are of position that the question of when life begins is a scientific, medical issue. That shouldn’t be decided at this stage, without proper hearing, evidence. In the case at bench, it is not within the province of the Court to determine whether the use of contraceptives or one’s participation in the support of modem reproductive health measures is moral from a religious standpoint or whether the same is right or wrong according to one’s dogma or belief. For the Court has declared that matters dealing with “faith, practice, doctrine, form of worship, ecclesiastical law, custom and rule of a church... are unquestionably ecclesiastical matters which are outside the province of the civil courts.”

The Court’s actually says that life begins at fertilization, not at implantation, citing the explanation of Constitutional Commissioner Mr. Villegas during the deliberations drafting the Constitution, that “fertilization arises when the ovum is fertilized that the sperm that there is human life x x x”. This means that a zygote is a human organism and that the life of a human being begins upon conception, i.e. upon fertilization, not during implantation, the position taken by Representative Edcel Lagman. In this sense, the RH law is in line with the intent of the framers of the Constitution proscribing abortion. It points out that the RH Law itself clearly mandates that protection be afforded from the moment of fertilization. Further, the Court stressed that the RH law recognizes that abortion is a crime under Article 256 of the Revised Penal Code and in carrying out its declared policy the law consistently prohibits the use of abortifacients, defined as drugs that induce abortion or the destruction of the fetus inside the mother’s womb.

In sum, the Court ruled that the RH law is “a mere compilation and enhancement of the prior existing contraceptive and reproductive health laws, but with coercive measures,” citing the Population Act (R.A. No. 6365), the Contraceptive Act (R.A. No. 4729) and the reproductive health for women or The Magna Carta of Women (R.A. No. 9710). However, while acknowledging that the Philippines is faced with a population problem, the Court said the state should not use coercive measures (like the penal provisions of the RH Law against conscientious objectors) to solve it.

In my view, this landmark decision is an affirmation of the long held-constitutional principles of separation of church and state and the principle of non-interference in the wisdom of the law.  In this sense, it is actually a conservative court that ruled on the RH Law. That court could have chosen the more controversial path and declared the law unconstitutional but to have done so would be to defy the basic principles of constitutionalism and would have brought us to unexplored, dangerous legal territory. By ruling as it did, the Court dodged a social bullet, a bomb in fact, and has rendered a decision that seems to have been accepted by everyone except the most partisan on RH issues.

In the next column, I will discuss how the Court tackled the issue of religious freedom and conscientious objection and how these principles were applied by the Court in ruling that eight provisions of the RH Law were unconstitutional.

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