Feliciano Belmonte Jr

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”.

Noy lauded for remaining firm on RH Bill support

Noy lauded for remaining firm on RH Bill support
By Paolo Romero
The Philippine Star

House Minority Leader and Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said Mr. Aquino “needs to be complemented and supported for standing firm against the Catholic hierarchy in his advocacy for responsible parenthood and contraceptive use based on freedom of informed choice.”

Curiously though, a prominent member of the House minority bloc, former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is against the RH Bill and has co-authored a pro-life measure to protect the rights of the unborn.

“The steadfast position of the President on voluntary family planning is an unequivocal endorsement for the enactment of a comprehensive and nationwide statute on reproductive health and population development,” Lagman said.

Belmonte brings together much bigger House coalition

Belmonte brings together much bigger House coalition
By Gil C. Cabacungan Jr.
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines — A runaway winner in the battle for speakership, Quezon City Representative Feliciano Belmonte Jr. has forged an alliance in the House of Representatives much bigger than the “rainbow coalition” of then Speaker Jose de Venecia.

Unlike in the Senate where the battle for the presidency of that chamber went almost down the wire, the race for the speakership was settled fairly early—just days after the May 10 elections, when it was clear that Benigno S. Aquino III would emerge as the new President.

The only question then was how many would vote for Belmonte as the top honcho in the chamber, according to Mandaluyong City Rep. Neptali Gonzales II, who is set to be named as House majority leader and chairman of the House committee on rules.

Belmonte is expected to be formally elected Speaker when the 15th Congress holds its inaugural session on Monday.

About 220 to 230 representatives from the Liberal Party, Lakas-Kampi-Christian-Muslim Democrats, Nationalist People’s Coalition, Nacionalista Party, Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino and other parties and party-list groups were expected to vote for Belmonte. His colleagues said this was a reflection of Mr. Aquino’s current popularity.

“This is much bigger than former House Speaker Jose de Venecia’s much vaunted rainbow coalition,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales has yet to come up with a name for the Belmonte coalition after some members rejected his initial proposal to call it the “Coalition for Conscience and Reform.”

Belmonte was also the Speaker in the 11th Congress, before he served three straight terms as Quezon City mayor from 2001.

In an interview during a “show of force” meeting at Edsa Shangri-La Hotel on Friday, Belmonte refused to be caught up in the euphoria over his imminent election as Speaker, declining to talk about his plans before Monday’s voting.

Backed by Mr. Aquino’s mass support, Belmonte is expected to move bills much faster into laws, especially after the minority Lakas-Kampi-CMD party declared that it would not be a “contravida” in the 15th Congress, even though its leader is Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whom Aquino had opposed when she was president.

“We will not be obstructionists. We will cooperate with the new administration to ensure that reforms promised by the new administration and which our party believes in will be implemented,” said Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez.

Suarez has agreed to a term-sharing with Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, who was likely to be elected minority leader on Monday. Suarez said he would take over the post after one and a half years.

Although the Liberal Party has only 70 members in the House—second to Lakas-Kampi’s 80—the party of Mr. Aquino expects to corner much of the spoils given to the ruling party.

Named deputies of incoming Speaker Belmonte, whose number has increased from four to six, are Quezon Rep. Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada, Northern Samar Rep. Raul Daza and Zamboanga City Rep. Maria Isabelle Climaco from the Liberal Party; Cavite Rep. Jesus Crispin Remulla from the Nacionalista Party; Camarines Sur Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella from the Nationalist People’s Coalition; and Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia from Lakas-Kampi-CMD.