Debate centers on ‘when life begins’
Forces opposed to the Reproductive Health Act unleashed their most scathing arguments against the law in oral arguments Tuesday in the hopes of convincing the magistrates of the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional.
Former senator Francisco Tatad described the law as “an instrument of genocide” and urged the justices to stop the government from carrying it out.
Tatad said the RH law suppressed the freedom of choice as enshrined in the Constitution because it redefined the purpose of marriage. Worse, he said, it denied the basic right of married couples to procreate as they saw fit.
“They must practice birth control or else suffer the consequences. That is not freedom of choice at all. That is not protecting the family as foundation of the nation,” Tatad told the Court in his opening statement.
“That is not equally protecting the right of the mother and right of the unborn and this is simply putting the family under state supervision and control…Have we become a democracy only to submit to state supervision and control?” said Tatad, one of the 15 petitioners who asked the Court to nullify the RH law.
Tatad warned that the law would “rewrite the mandate of the Constitution by imposing population control to state-mandated contraception.”
He said that under the RH law, couples are only given the options of periodic continence and contraception. “They cannot choose not to choose between the two methods. They must practice birth control or suffer the consequences,” the former lawmaker said.
Tatad also said the law does not equally protect the lives of mothers and their unborn children.
Maria Concepcion Noche, counsel for the Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines, one of the 15 petitioners, said the RH law violated a person’s constitutional right to life and right to health.
She said life starts during conception, when a sperm cell meets an egg cell and forms an ovum or zygote.
“A fertilized ovum is alive. It has life. This is a vital sign of life. Fertilized ovum is human. There is human life on conception,” Noche said.
Noche said oral contraceptives and intra-uterine devices have “abortive capacity” and can be used to abort a fertilized ovum.
The lawyer said the unborn’s constitutional right to life, which is the supreme right since it “gives birth” to other rights, would be prejudiced if the RH law were implemented.
Noche pleaded the justices to declare the RH law unconstitutional as it violated the provision mandating the state to protect life during conception.
“Let all the voices of the unborn be heard in this supreme tribunal. Let their voice be yours,” she said.
Noche charged that proponents of the RH law in Congress “re-engineered the meaning of conception by making it synonymous with implantation,” referring to the very early stage of pregnancy at which the embryo adheres to the wall of the uterus.
However, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio asked how the magistrates would be able to settle this issue of conception, when the medical community itself has not conclusively resolved it.
“You’re asking us to decide on medical issue, on when conception happens? If it’s not settled in the medical profession, how can you expect us to settle this?” he said.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen agreed.
“We are not a council of faith nor medical doctors, we are only SC justices. What we can only use as tools are the law. You are giving us the awesome responsibility to determine the beginning of
life,” he said.
In her riposte, Noche said: “It is settled among health professionals that life starts in fertilization.”
Citing scientific studies, the lawyer said the fertilized ovum is “alive with 46 chromosomes.”
Associate Justice Roberto Abad sided with the petitioner on this point, saying that the Court can decide on this issue based on an “understanding of when conception or life begins.”
“There’s no need for medical expertise,” he said.
Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo–De Castro backed Abad’s position, and even disputed the definition of “conception” used by the authors of the RH law, which is supported by the Department of Health.
“Life cannot begin from implantation because even if you implant something that is not living, it will not grow and develop,” she said.
Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo conceded to the petitioner’s definition of conception: “Upon meeting of egg and sperm, I think there is already life there. I can see that.”
However, Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta believed that there might be a need to “ask the people who ratified the Constitution how they understood the term ‘conception.’”
Like others who oppose contraception, Noche said the RH Act violated the right to life by promoting abortion, claiming too that intra-uterine devices and pills promoted in the law are abortifacients.
But Justice Del Castillo questioned what appeared to be a hasty generalization on the part of petitioner on contraceptives being espoused by the RH law – especially after Noche admitted that
they do not consider condoms as abortifacient.
“You keep saying these are abortifacient, then let’s prove it, let’s put them to test. Provide us a list of these abortifacient drugs that you are [talking about],” he said.
Noche also argued that pills do not prevent contraception with 100 percent certainty and efficacy, citing statistics of women who become pregnant even after taking them.
Besides, the government would not have control over the use of contraceptives once they are distributed, the lawyer said.
Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno spoke academically of the state’s mandate to protect family life as embodied in Article II Section 12 of the Constitution.
She also said women could make a choice by simply pushing their husbands away as a form of natural family planning.
Former senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who was scheduled to argue that the law violates the autonomy of local governments and the equal protection clause under the Constitution, chose instead to submit a memorandum to make his points.
“Our argument can’t be covered within the 15-minute time slot fixed by the Court, so I suggest they pass the time allotted to me to fellow lawyers among the petitioners,” he said.
Not all the petitioners were able to speak as the Court cut the debate short and set another hearing on July 23.
In the enxt hearing, lawyer Luisito Liban is expected to argue that the law violates the right to religion, right to free speech, academic freedom, and the “proscription on involuntary servitude,” while lawyer Luis Gana is set to argue that the law violates the Organic Act on the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The 15 consolidated petitions were filed by couple James and Lovely-Ann Imbong, the non-profit group Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines Inc., Serve Life Cagayan de Oro City, Task Force for Family and Life Visayas Inc., lawyer Expedito Bugarin, Eduardo Olaguer of the Catholic Xybrspace Apostolate of the Philippines, Philippine Alliance of Ex-Seminarians Inc., Reynaldo Echavez, Tatad and his wife Ma.Fenny, a group of doctors represented by lawyer Howard Calleja, Millenium Saint Foundation Inc., Pro-Life Philippines Foundation Inc., a group of Catholic students represented by the legal office of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Catholic lay group Couples For Christ Foundation and Almarim Centi Tillah and Abdul Hussein Kashim.
After all counsels for the petitioners have spoken, the respondents would be allowed to argue why the law is constitutional.
Named respondents in the petitions were Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa Jr., Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Education Secretary Armin Luistro, Health Secretary Enrique Ona, and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II.
The six intervenors in the case would then present their arguments in support of the RH law.
They are losing senatorial bet and former Akbayan Rep. Ana Theresia Hontiveros; former secretaries of Health Esperanza Cabral, Jamie Galvez–Tan and Alberto Romualdez Jr.; the group of 2005 Bar topnotcher Joan De Venecia; Sen. Pia Cayetano, sponsor of the measure in the Senate; the Catholics for Reproductive Health and Interfaith Partnership for the Promotion of Responsible Parenthood Inc.; and Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, author of the law in the House of Representatives.
The Court issued last March 19 a 120-day status quo ante order enjoining the government from implementing the law. The order lapses on July 17.
As the public hearing went on inside the Supreme Court session hall, supporters and detractors of the RH law taunted each other with chants before police made sure that the demonstrations by the opposing camps stayed peaceful.