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SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Debate on when life begins lives on

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/14 April) — A total of fourteen petitions questioning the constitutionality of the reproductive health (RH) law were filed at the Supreme Court, which handed down a decision on April 8 that the law is “not unconstitutional”. Although the ruling is unanimous, it struck down eight provisions mostly pertaining to penalties for “conscientious objectors”.

Opponents of the RH law cited the voiding of these eight provisions as a victory, saying it has rendered the law inutile. Pro-RH advocates just laughed off the claim, noting that the central objective of the law has remained intact and enforceable. I agree with the position that despite the nullification of eight provisions the essence of the law has been preserved. The anti-RH groups overrated the value of the eight items that were struck down as a psychological antidote to the stinging wounds caused by the ruling.

In the ponencia written by Associate Justice Jose Catral Mendoza the Court summed up the arguments raised in the petitions into twelve points. But if one were to decipher those arguments they boil down to the lingering claim of the Church – its conservative elements to be exact – that the RH law contravenes its teachings on when life begins. All other issues, including religious freedom, revolve around this central position.

Petitioners cited two main grounds why the RH law violates the right to life of the unborn: the use of contraceptive methods that are deemed abortive, and violation of Natural Law by the use of such contraceptives. In other words, they held contraception and abortion to be one and the same thing.

Petitioners maintained the law allows contraceptives that prevent implantation of fertilized ovum, which already has life and is afforded protection by the constitution. Respondents countered that only non-abortifacient RH care services, methods, devices and products are allowed. They further pointed out that the law specifically provides that only contraceptives that do not prevent the implantation of the fertilized ovum are allowed.

The Court resolved the issue by referring to the provisions on contraceptives in the 1987 Constitution and in the RH law itself. It gave a cursory view of the country’s population policies since 1966 with the passage of Republic Act No. 4729 which regulates the sale and use of contraceptive drugs and devices. It noted that while the use of contraceptives has evolved from being a mere demographic management tool to one centered on the promotion of public health esp. reproductive health, it has always been grounded on the principle of no-abortion and principle of no-coercion based on the constitution.

“The fact that not all contraceptives are prohibited by the 1987 Constitution is even admitted by petitioners during the oral arguments. There it was conceded that tubal ligation, vasectomy, even condoms are not classified as abortifacients,” the ponencia reads.

“Contrary to the assertions made by the petitioners, the Court finds that the RH Law, consistent with the Constitution, recognizes that the fertilized ovum already has life and that the State has a bounden duty to protect it,” it adds.

The main decision further holds that life begins at fertilization, although the constitution “textually” affords protection to the unborn from conception, hence “contraceptives that kill fertilized ovum should be deemed abortive, and those that take effect prior to fertilization should be deemed non-abortive.”

The Court adds: “…Not a single contraceptive has yet been submitted to the FDA pursuant to the RH Law. It behooves the Court to await its determination which drugs or devices are declared by the FDA as safe, it being the agency tasked to ensure that food and medicines available to the public are safe for public consumption. Consequently, the Court finds that, at this point, the attack on the RH Law on this ground is premature. Indeed, the various kinds of contraceptives must first be measured up to the constitutional yardstick as expounded herein, to be determined as the case presents itself.”

One of the petitioners, the Philippine Alliance of XSeminarians or PAX, offered another argument against the use of contraceptives, one that attempted to impose the Church’s own theory of Natural Law in relation to human sexuality: “Contraception is gravely opposed to marital chastity, it is contrary to the good of the transmission of life, and to the reciprocal self-giving of the spouses; it harms true love and denies the sovereign rule of God in the transmission of Human life.”

I don’t know how these ex-seminarians came to the conclusion that contraception effectively makes spouses less chaste. It is clear, however, that for them any and all sexual acts should solely serve the purpose of procreation. Somebody has yet to convince me that getting pleasure from sex without resulting in pregnancy isn’t part of Natural Law that the Church insists should govern human activities.

As expected, the Court refused “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.”

“In the same breath that the establishment clause restricts what the government can do with religion, it also limits what religious sects can or cannot do with the government. They can neither cause the government to adopt their particular doctrines as policy for everyone, nor can they not cause the government to restrict other groups. To do so, in simple terms, would cause the State to adhere to a particular religion and, thus, establishing a state religion.

“Consequently, the petitioners are misguided in their supposition that the State cannot enhance its population control program through the RH Law simply because the promotion of contraceptive use is contrary to their religious beliefs. Indeed, the State is not precluded to pursue its legitimate secular objectives without being dictated upon by the policies of any one religion. One cannot refuse to pay his taxes simply because it will cloud his conscience. The demarcation line between Church and State demands that one render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

What the ruling amounts to is that the Church has failed to put a definitive end to the debate on when life begins. In their own time, the framers of the 1987 Constitution, whose deliberations were cited at length in the decision, tried to put some clarity to an issue that has divided believers and non-believers alike, but all they could do was settle for an open-ended idea called conception.

And what did the other Justices say on this matter? Let’s tackle it in the next column. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at hmcmordeno@gmail.com)

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