WITH the cool and clement climate of Baguio City wafting over their final deliberations, the Supreme Court issued on Tuesday its ruling on the Reproductive Health Law. Like Baguio’s weather, its decision is cool, calming, wise and surprisingly eloquent.
I wanted to describe the decision also as “catholic”—an English adjective with a small c, which means broadminded and universal. But readers might confuse it for Catholic with a capital C, which means a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
Some will say that the High Court has issued a decision that is win-win for both sides of the fevered RH debate, including outside groups that invested in the controversy.
Others will sardonically say that it is a ruling that both sides can attack.
I say it is a decision that the nation can applaud for saving us from continuing trench warfare and endless argumentation.
Once again we have tangible reason to believe that we have a Supreme Court that will not just bow to pressure from the President or indulge the proclivities of Congress.
That perception flows from the court’s confident exercise of the power of judicial review, which, briefly put, is the court’s power to review and rule whether an act of Congress or the president violates the Constitution or runs afoul of constitutional principles.
One court opinion, 9 concurring opinions
As if to reflect the importance and degree of public feeling about the case, the decision of the Court totaled a hefty 107 pages.
The Court’s opinion on the RH Law was written by Associate Justice Jose Catral Mendoza, with nine justices submitting concurring and dissenting opinions, namely: 1. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (written in Filipino); 2. Senior Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio; 3. Associate Justice Teresita J. Leonardo-deCastro; 4. Associate Justice Arturo D. Brion; 5. Associate Justice Mariano C. Del Castillo; 6. Associate Justice Roberto A. Abad; 7.
Associate Justice Bienvenido L. Reyes; 8. Associate Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe, and 9. Associate Justice Marvic M. Leonen.
If you’re wondering why so many concurring/ dissenting opinions, since the decision of the SC is always unanimous, a legal expert tells me that these separate opinions are designed to call attention to the justices writing them and to signal to those who lobbied them for their vote.
The Court’s opinion naturally divides into two distinct findings:
Constitutional in double negative
First, it unanimously holds that Republic Act No. 10354 is NOTUNCONSTITUTIONAL based on the grounds raised.
The formulation in “double negative,” says the ruling, is peculiar to constitutional adjudication and is premised on the presumption that all laws are presumed to be constitutional and the burden of showing that a law is unconstitutional is on the petitioner.
The court refrains from saying outright that RA 10354 is constitutional because that “would presume that the law operates from a starting point of unconstitutionality, which is not the situation.”
More to the point, the Court said that it decided to uphold the legality of the RH law because of its “policy of non-interference in the wisdom of a law.” More on this and the presumption of constitutionality in a future column, on which I’ve gotten some revealing research.
Continuing, the court opinion says: “In general, the Court does not find the RH law as unconstitutional insofar as it seeks to provide access to medically-safe, non-abortifacient, effective, legal, affordable, and quality reproductive health care services, methods, devices, and supplies.
“The RH Law does not sanction the taking away of life. It does not allow abortion in any shape or form. It only seeks to enhance the population control program of the government by providing information and making non-abortifacient contraceptives more readily available to the public, especially to the poor,” the Court said.
Unconstitutional on coercive provisions
The second part of the court decision emphatically strikes down several provisions of the reproductive health law and limits the government’s ability to exercise its coercive powers on population issues.
It warns the government against forcing people to abide by measures to control the country’s ballooning population.
The Court says: “Indeed, at present, the country has a population problem, but the state should not use coercive measures (like the penal provisions of the RH Law against conscientious objectors) to solve it.”
This rejection of coercive measures is the primary reason the Court struck down seven mandatory provisions in the law and a section in its implementing rules and regulations.
To explain the two-pronged ruling, the Court observes that the RH law is “a mere compilation and enhancement of the prior existing contraceptive and reproductive health laws, but with coercive measures,” citing the Population Act (R.A. No. 6365), the Contraceptive Act (R.A. No. 4729) and the reproductive health for women or The Magna Carta of Women (R.A. No. 9710)
A section of lucidity and good sense
Thirdly, in a significant part of the Court’s ruling, the Court showed keen awareness of demographic realities and trends in the world today. It declined to be dragged into the cliché arguments of pro-RH and anti-RH advocates.
It noted that population control “may not be beneficial for the country in the long run” based on the experiences of European and Asian countries, which embarked on such a program generations ago and are now burdened with aging populations.
“The number of their young workers is dwindling with adverse effects on their economy.
These young workers represent a significant human capital which could have helped them invigorate, innovate and fuel their economy. These countries are now trying to reverse their programs, but they are still struggling,” the Court said.
The Court also said that the government may be barking up the wrong tree in resolving the perennial problem of poverty and unemployment.
“Let it be said that the cause of these perennial issues is not the large population but the unequal distribution of wealth. Even if population growth is controlled, poverty will remain as long as the country’s wealth remains in the hands of the very few,” it said.
Finally, in a sign of prudence, the Court opted to distance itself from the issue of when life actually begins and other moral and religious questions.
The court says: “Majority of the members of the Court are of the position that the question of when life begins is a scientific, medical issue. That shouldn’t be decided at this stage, without proper hearing, evidence.”
“In the case at bench, it is not within the province of the Court to determine whether the use of contraceptives or one’s participation in the support of modern reproductive health measures is moral from a religious standpoint or whether the same is right or wrong according to one’s dogma or belief. For the Court has declared that matters dealing with “faith, practice, doctrine, form of worship, ecclesiastical law, custom and rule of a church… are unquestionably ecclesiastical matters which are outside the province of the civil courts,” the Court said.
Miriam Santiago and Kit Tatad
On the whole a wise and perceptive ruling. But it won’t necessarily end the debates about the RH law and birth control. Not at once.
It is emblematic of the national situation that two neighbors in La Vista Subdivision, Quezon City, who have taken opposite positions on the RH issue—Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago and former senator and columnist Francisco Kit Tatad – and live on the same street, have signaled further skirmishing down the road.
Miriam wants RH advocates to appeal the SC ruling and insist on the restoration of the banned provisions of the RH law.
Kit sounded off with a warning that the Supreme Court decision could ignite a Catholic revolt in the country.
I leave this absorbing topic with this thought: We can’t talk about how to end pregnancy, without also talking about how it begins.
There is a point where the issue becomes a dead end.
One writer has commented that people engaged in pitch battles over birth control, can move forward together if they will only bother to discover how much they have or hold in common—like their shared concern for the well-being of children and mothers, and their desire for our nation and our people to prosper.