Just as the RH bill cleared the House Appropriations Committee yesterday, Malacañang had practically ensured its stillbirth. On the 7th of February, the Inquirer reported that indeed the Palace had retracted its earlier position by de-prioritizing its own version of the bill from among the legislative measures it intended to endorse at the February 28 reconvening of the LEDAC or Legislative Executive Development Advisory Council.
Reacting to speculation that this constituted a caving in by the administration in response to veiled threats issued by the CBCP or Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines following a courtesy call by retired Archbishop Ricardo Vidal, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda defended the Palace position by reportedly stating that “the bill could be introduced in Congress within the year but it would not be certified as urgent anymore” and that “(w)e are not pushing, we are not introducing the bill until after we finish the dialogue with the bishops” adding that “the Palace had nothing to do with the consolidated RH measure now set for plenary debate in the House of Representatives” (quotes taken from two Inquirer accounts).
Indeed by withdrawing its endorsement of its own bill, the Palace may have demonstrated an unwillingness to play the amazing hand that it has been dealt with. The president not only can boast of tremendous popularity, but he could also claim that a sizable majority of Filipinos were in favor of the bill. There was no need or urgency to be circumspect in selecting battles. The inability to call the bluff of the bishops and readiness to fold this early in the game shows perhaps a lack of a political strategy among the players within Malacañang.
It should be noted that for the Palace to endorse a bill to Congress, it was not necessary for it to present its draft of legislation as final. It could endorse a proposed draft or set of drafts subject to consultation as it is most likely to undergo during congressional deliberations. Privileging the voice of the clergy in this way over that of other groups, namely women’s and children’s as well as gay rights groups, was a tremendous concession to make, which could be construed as an act of extreme risk aversion.
Earlier, P-Noy had performed what could be considered an intelligent reframing of the debate by calling the RH Bill the “Responsible Parenthood” Bill, not that it concerns itself with parenthood alone, as HIV/AIDS prevention is an important element. By constructing the target audience of the bill in this manner, P-Noy was legitimizing the policy to power brokers by connecting it with the mainstream and not just the marginalized groups on the fringes of society with negative cultural connotations.
Contrast that with today’s headline that the President would plead with the Chinese president to grant clemency to three Filipinos sentenced to death because of drug trafficking. It might be said that Malacañang was unwilling to take up the cudgels for the thousands of women that die every year (according the the UN Population Fund) due to poor maternal and reproductive health services, yet it will go to great lengths to plead for the lives of three convicted drug smugglers. In either case, it will be seen as being ready to fall prostrate before a “higher power” whether secular or religious for political expediency.
In Parliamentary parlance, what the Palace has in fact done has been to call for a conscience vote on the floor. In effect, if the RH Bill is ever voted upon, the ruling party would not have a policy position either for or against the legislation. Congressmen and senators that comprise the ruling coalition will be free to vote as they please without any reprisal from the ruling party. Being isolated in this way will make them even more vulnerable to lobbying and threats by the vocal groups that oppose it.
What P-Noy might eventually be accused of is leading his troops in the charge and then abandoning them right in the midst of battle. Having been leaned on by the patriarchs of the Church to wash his hands of any parental responsibility over his love child, the president might be viewed as having left the proponents of the RH Bill with only two options: either to abort it or deliver it on their own.