Why is the RH Bill taking so long?

Philippine adherence to the Catholic Church remains strong.

It is an institution that has withstood half a millenium on home soil. The only time in its history that Roman Catholicism was under threat was during the Philippine revolution for independence against Spain at the turn of the last century, when as part of the movement, the Philippine Independent Church sought to secede from the Church of Rome.

The Catholic Church has formed such an integral part of Filipino cultural identity that even after its transformation into a highly literate, open society, the Philippines remains staunchly conservative with respect to social mores including sexual education and family planning.

Filipinos demonstrated a strong devotion to their church as an institution in the World Values Survey of 1996 and 2001. In the chart that appears below (click to enlarge), country responses to the question do you have “a great deal” of confidence in the church are shown. The Philippines ranked eighth among all the countries surveyed (for those wondering if there is more recent data, the latest round conducted between 2005 and 2008 did not include the Philippines).

The only predominantly Christian nation

With 65% of respondents expressing great confidence in their church, the Philippines finds itself trailing countries like Morrocco, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan and Tanzania. It edged out India, Algeria, Zimbabwe, and Iran. It is the only predominantly Christian country in the top 10 (Census data in 2000 revealed it was 92.5% Christian, 81% Roman Catholic).

The nations with the lowest levels of confidence in organized religion include Japan, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and Great Britain. They are followed by Estonia, Austria, Belgium, Vietnam, France, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Finland. The United States falls very close to the world average at about 37%.

To demonstrate just how revered the church is in the Philippines, the following chart (click to enlarge) shows the results for various institutions in the Philippines from the same survey (1996 and 2001 results are averaged out). It shows that churches are by far the institution that has secured the greatest level of trust from the people with 65% expressing “a great deal” of confidence in it.

The environmental movement, along with the army, justice system, women’s movement and the media inspire much lower levels of confidence ranging from 28% down to 23% (not even half of confidence in churches). Among the least trusted are political parties (8%), the government (12%), labour unions and parliament (both at 15%), major companies (16%), the police (17%) and civil services (19%).

Most revered institution

The next chart combines those that expressed “a lot” and those that had “a great deal” of confidence in a range of institutions.  Again, churches garnered the highest level of trust with almost universal confidence (93%) being expressed by the sample (which numbered close to 2,400 participants for the two rounds). The women’s movement came in second (75%) followed by the environmental movement (74%), the army (71%), television (70%) and the press (70%).  They are followed by the civil services (69%) and the justice system (66%).

The institutions that found the least levels of confidence were political parties (46%), labour unions and government (both at 55%), the police (58%), parliament (61%) and major companies (66%). Given the strong performance of the church vis-à-vis other institutions in the country, it is not surprising to see it have such a big influence on the public debate over the consolidated reproductive health bill (RH bill) in congress.

The good news for the women’s movement is that it does not seem to suffer the same stigma as other seemingly “radical” institutions like labour unions. The same bit of good news applies to the environmental cause.

By contrast, congress, the government at large and political parties seem to suffer from low confidence (the presidency which was part of the survey in other countries was not included in the Philippines). It is therefore not surprising to see the president swing from one end of the pendulum to the other and back again on the issue of the RH bill.

See-saw battle

In late January consistent with his campaign pledge, he expressed continuing support for it. Then in early February after a one-on-one private meeting with a retired cardinal in his office, the president backed away from including the RH bill among his priority legislative measures. Then in March, he proposed a “third way” to bring about a compromise between the pro- and anti-RH camps. He said he would stick to his stand even if it meant ex-communication.

Seeing the president waver and hedging his bets, women’s and environmental groups came out to rally behind the bill. To their credit, congressional leaders including the speaker and leader of the minority seemed to form bi-partisan solidarity in ushering the package through the lower house. Then came support from other religious institutions in the country. The protestant churches and the influential Iglesia ni Cristo came out in support of the measure.

This might have tipped the scales for the president who then belatedly renewed his support for the house version of the bill which he had earlier de-prioritized. Having found a lukewarm greeting to his invitation for dialogue, his representatives issued a statement saying the president was happy with the house version and would throw the full weight of his office behind it.

One final hitch

Then finally the latest twist came from the speaker of the house Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte, Jr whose view it was that there was no urgency to pass the RH bill before the end of this session of Congress. The following was reported in today’s Inquirer

Belmonte Thursday said it would not be possible to put to a vote the consolidated House Bill 4244, or the “Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health, and Population and Development Bill,” during the remaining session days of Congress.

“We need not finish this (RH bill) in the last 13 days. We’re trying to get in as many bills as possible and these are bills considered for committee reporting or on second reading,” Belmonte said.

The Speaker said there was no need to rush the RH bill since President Benigno Aquino III himself “has not made anything or any pressure on us” with regard to the measure.

In fact, the RH bill was not among the priority measures submitted by Malacañang to Congress, Belmonte said (emphasis added).

Once again, another snag has been uncovered on the road to the passing of this bill. It will certainly be frustrating to those who support it, but not surprising. I predicted that the real game here was to “beat the clock.” Many said that the president’s tacit approval of the bill was all that mattered. To me, the prioritization of the bill was crucial in securing its place on the agenda.

In the final analysis, we can see just how important not prioritizing the RH bill was. The cardinals might have extracted from the Palace all that they needed to delay its passage once more. No one can fault Speaker Belmonte for prioritizing other measures. It is after all his ministerial duty to do so. The president using the “judicious use” of his powers as an excuse to exclude the RH bill last February, may have found a middle path alright. On the one hand, he remains a supporter of reproductive health, on other he found a way to “keep the faith”.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy (www.thecusponline.org) and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • GabbyD

    i read somewhere that the bishops were willing to be arrested for their civil disobedience.

    thats great! its their right to be arrested if thats what they want. it’ll also show people that they truly mean what they are saying.

  • Liberty

    True PNoy was wishy washy on his RH stand pre and post-campaign period. But I think at this point he has clearly and without any ambiguity thrown his support for RH.

    I don’ t know what tactic Belmonte is playing by saying that. Maybe he was fishing for a reaction from the Palace. But he has always been pro-RH. This is why QC is one of the LGUs w/c provide RH services.

    • UP nn grad

      If Pnoy was wishy washy but now he is “..without any ambiguity”, is Pres Benigno Aquino III now wishy or is he washy? I guess wishy, right?

      If PresiNoynoy is back to wishy, can the CBCP do a tuarum-vobiscum chant to turn PresiNoynoy back to washy in June?

      • UP nn grad

        I think the Makati Business Club is not pushing PresiNoynoy at all to prioritize RH. Lack of Makati Business Club interest is making Presi-Noynoy natatabangan.

        Reason why Danding, theGokongweis or Lucio Tan disinterest in RH??? There is no money to be made from RH, no tax breaks being offered, nada.

    • We also have to consider that politicians have to weigh their self-interests in their decisions. And in this case, it is self-preservation.

      As the legislation process reaches the pointy bit of it, a lot of vacillation can occur. I guess from the speaker’s point of view, he would probably like to have some basis for prioritizing the RH bill above the other measures, so as not to offend anybody.

      And if the Palace is not willing to stick its neck out to prioritize it at this point, then why should the Speaker, is what a rational player would think. So, as I said, you can’t blame him for delaying it at this point.

      • Liberty

        They had the numbers in the lower house last Congress. If they put it to a vote then it would’ve garnered a majority (under hostile conditions from the executive and an HOR full of GMA’s allies).

        I dont’ see why pro-RH legislators should be afraid of anything now. I’m guessing that they also have the numbers this time around, the Palace has pretty much given the green light, there is no election coming up. If anything it is really just a perceived fear of the church – which is BS given how so many vocal pro-RH politicians were re-elected in 2010 even when the church was saying they would campaign against them (case in point – Edcel Lagman).

      • You have to realize that Edcel Lagman would have died in the trenches to get this bill passed; not so for the others whose tolerance for even the slightest political risk attached to this bill is very low.

        • Liberty

          I only mentioned Edcel to illustrate that the Church was not successful in campaigning against politicians who are Pro-RH. Ergo politicians’ fear of the Church is really unwarranted.

        • Fair enough, but I doubt whether you can generalize from the case of Lagman that every pro-RH seat will be safe from the anti-RH campaign.
          The culture of political risk aversion makes it hard for anyone to stick his neck out unnecessarily.
          So PNoy says to Congress, “pass it, and I’ll sign the bill.”
          The Speaker’s reply is, “Had you certified it as urgent, then we would have passed it.”
          The RH Bill is a political “hot potato” being tossed around by them for fear of reaping condemnation by the Church.

          • manuelbuencamino

            the battle over the RH Bill is a replay of the battle over the Rizal Bill. Then, the Catholic hierarchy fought as hard as they are fighting the RH Bill now. But Claro M. Recto and other nationalists carried the bill without leaning on Pres. Magsaysay for support. Today we venerate Recto, Tanada, etal as great Filipinos. Who remembers the names of those bishops who opposed them?

          • Liberty

            If we’re going to look at the most vocal reps (and the main authors) for the bill – they’ve been re-elected. Hontiveros nearly made the senate slate taking the 13th spot.

            And the main authors in the past have been the main authors this Congress. The Church is in HOR. They do door-to-door campaigning. They (or lay representatives) attend committee hearings. They hold masses in the North wing lobby. Its not just a media blitz. Theses guys know WHO to target (i.e. who to intimidate).

  • Bert

    Once again, the consistency of Doy in his attempt to pushing the president overboard. It will not work simply because the substance of the exposures were not serious enough to necessitate urgent consideration or action that might derail the direction and workings of the present government, and the ploy has been overplayed too much and too often.

    For example, whether this RH law will be approve today, or tomorrow, or next year, or two years after, will not mean the end of the world for the Philippines.

    There are more urgent tasks of governance that Noynoy has been prioritizing, and it will be done. The RH Bill will be approved in due time as promised.

    • I suppose since the proponents have waited since 1998 when the first version of the bill was filed, what’s another few more months or even years, right? since only a few thousand maternal deaths and abortions occur every year as a result of poor reproductive health?

      So, as a back up, perhaps we should look at providing conditional cash grants to expecting and lactating mothers just like in Mexico and India so that they learn about and avail of reproductive health services.

      But then, oh no those are hand-outs according to the bishops, and we won’t have the funds for ramping it up, given the fact that we have exhausted the low hanging fruit from the rice program, there’s no more easy source of funds to shift into the CCT.

      What is a government with not enough revenue and a burgeoning population to do?…Uhmm….

  • manuelbuencamino


    And so Belmonte is passing back the buck that it got from the Palace?

    I didn’t know it was the president who sets the agenda of congress. I thought the priority measure thing was recommendatory not mandatory. I guess Congress is not separate and co-equal after all?

    The Palace did not certify Lagman’s RH Bill as urgent because it had intended to introduce its own version of the bill after consultations with the bishops. It wanted inputs from them, to hear their objections to certain provisions of the bill. If the dialogue had succeeded then the Palace would have introduced its own RH Bill and most probably certified it as a priority bill of the administration. (Note that the Lagman bill has since amended certain provisions to accomodate some of the objections of the anti RH groups i.e. the provision on sex education etc.)

    Anyway, the bishops withdrew from the dialogue and declared all out war on the RH Bill. Since there was nothing else to talk about, no more inputs for the Palace to consider, the Palace did not have to write a “third way” bill anymore. And so the Palace position is, the president will sign the RH Bill that congress submits. It is still the congress’ bill after all. And the Palace supports it.

    I don’t believe it was wrong for the president to try to bring opposing sides to some sort of middle ground. Trying to prevent the nation from being divided into theological camps is praiseworthy.

    • All I am saying is that there is “plausible deniability” on the part of the president and his men in saying they tried to bridge irreconcilable positions together, which oppose each other on theological grounds, literally. So by doing so, they can excuse themselves for failing to get the bill passed.
      End result is that this RH bill which is about 15 years in the making and counting will have to wait for another sitting of Congress to progress. Whose interests does that serve? Shouldn’t we judge the performance of the Palace based on results, not intentions? Just asking the question, that’s all.

      • manuelbuencamino


        I understand and that’s why I tried to give you my perspective.

        There is no need for plausible deniability for failing to get the bill passed because it is not up to the president to get the bill passed. Congress writes the bills. The president signs the bills into law. Only way you can blame the president if the RH Bill does not become law is if he vetoes it.

        There are limits to a president’s power as far as getting his way with Congress. We’ve discussed that earlier so we need not go over it again.

        • UP nn grad

          Presi-Noy is pushing for “one billion trees planted” and he should get applause for it.

          Presi-Noynoy NOT pushing for RH — same thing, except on the negative side. Boo!!!!

          Presi-Noynoy had used his bully pulpit to get Merci-Merci to resign — Presi-Noynoy has to use his bully pulpit to get RH passed.

          Same story with Freedom-Information-bill. Presi-Noynoy has not been meeting with any group from Congress about FOI.

          Yay-Noynoy— TREES!!!
          Boo!!!-Nonoy- for RH and FOI.

          Not true, the ONLY WAY sentence :
          “Only way you can blame the president if the RH Bill does not become law is if he vetoes it.” by ManuB.

          • UP nn grad

            Not even Lacierda nor Mar Roxas would dare say the “ONLY WAY” sentence above. Maybe UseC Puno would, but not Lacierda. Maybe spokesperson deLima would, but not Mar Roxas.

            Definitely, GMA nor Erap nor FVR would say ManuB’s “ONLY-WAY blame” sentence, , and these three people know when a perss-i-dente should and should not get blame.

            This is my opinion. ManuB can express his opinion if he thinks his sentence is still correct.

    • UP nn grad

      I side with Doy.

      To be more clear, I believe that all Pinoys who want RH to become law, all Pinoys who want the CBCP to lose on this one and for RH to become law should be pushing Presi-Noynoy to be a leader. Lead, not be a waiting second lieutenant and General Lagman to lead.

      I am getting confused by ManuB’s position… maybe ManuB may secretly want another decade to pass before RH becomes law.