When President Rodrigo Duterte openly shared the gossip about Senator Leila de Lima’s relationship with her married driver-bodyguard, bills legitimizing divorce were filed in Congress.
Although the filing was not purposely timed to highlight the gossip, it nevertheless underscored the need for a serious consideration of the bill this time, given the status of people in high positions in government who are embroiled in legal and moral problems over their marital relationships.
Perhaps under this administration, logic and reason will prevail and a divorce bill will finally become law to put an end to the hypocrisy of the societal norms and practices related to marriage.
The Philippines legally sanctioned divorce for more than 400 years until 1950, when the Americans repealed the Spanish law based on a medieval code called Siete Partidas.
Because of intense lobbying by the Catholic Church, the Civil Code of 1950 prohibited divorce for Filipinos. In essence, this prohibition continues to be in force under the 1987 Family Code.
Apart from the Vatican City, the Philippines – a predominantly Catholic country – is the only place in the world that still outlaws divorce. Legalizing divorce is a proposal that is bitterly dividing legislators and the public principally because of the strong Church lobby.
While the Philippine Constitution formally guarantees the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church wields disturbing influence on politics, commenting on specific policies, which comes short of meddling, or advising voters on candidates for office.
The Church has long been actively campaigning against what it calls the “DEATH” bills — proposals to allow divorce, euthanasia, abortion, total population control and homosexual marriage — calling them “anti-family and anti-life.”
Even before the 17th Congress convened on July 25, Representative Edcel Lagman of Albay had filed House Bill No. 116, seeking to institutionalize absolute divorce as a means for the “merciful liberation of the hapless wife from a long-dead marriage.”
On August 10, Reps. Emmi de Jesus and Arlene Brosas of the activist Gabriela Women’s Party filed HB 2380, renewing the push to legalize the dissolution of marriage that Reps. Liza Maza and Luzviminda Ilagan began during the 13th Congress in 2005.
Before this, several attempts to reinstitute divorce have taken place, from as early as 1988 when Senator Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. filed a bill seeking to recognize marriage dissolutions in religious institutions. In 1992, Sen. Leticia Ramos Shahani filed a bill seeking the recognition of divorces obtained by Filipinos overseas, and in 1995, Sen. Nikki Coseteng filed a resolution to enact a Divorce Code.
These proposals were, however, barely debated. In 1998, Sen. Teofisto Guingona filed a bill to delete the provision on legal separation and to integrate it as grounds for annulment. In 1999, Rep. Manuel Ortega of La Union filed HB 6993 to legalize divorce and in 2001 Rep. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo and Sen. Rodolfo Biazon each filed similar bills on divorce.
The divorce bills aim to amend Articles 26 and 55 to 66 – provisions on legal separation — under Executive Order No. 209 or The Family Code of the Philippines, to include divorce as a way for spouses to end their marriages. Likewise, the bills seek to repeal Article 36 of the Family Code to make psychological incapacity a basis for divorce rather than for annulment.
The Family Code prescribes only three options for couples who decide to end their union: declaration of nullity under Article 36, annulment under Article 45, and legal separation under Article 55.
Data from the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) show that the number of annulment cases in the Philippines increased by 40 percent from 4,520 cases in 2001 to 8,282 in 2010.
A December 2014 survey by private polling firm Social Weather Stations (SWS) showed that 60 percent of respondents favor divorce, with only 29 percent not in favor and 11 percent undecided. This was higher than the results of surveys conducted in March 2011 (50 percent) and May 2005 (43 percent).
Look around you and you are likely to see at least one couple stuck in a difficult or dysfunctional marriage, or a philanderer’s child. The Church’s vehement objection to divorce is anchored on the Biblical verse “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder (separate).”
Opponents say marriage is a lifelong commitment and that divorce is anti-God and immoral. Is it then pro-God and moral to stick together in an unhappy or destructive marriage, exposing the children to more harm when the spouses are often at each other’s throats, threatening to kill each other, or shamelessly engaging in extramarital affairs?
The current bill lays out five grounds for petitioning for divorce:
• The petitioner has been separated de facto from his or her spouse for at least five years at the time of the filing of the petition and reconciliation is highly improbable;
• The petitioner has been legally separated from his or her spouse for at least two years at the time of the filing of the petition and reconciliation is highly improbable;
• When any of the grounds for legal separation has caused the irreparable breakdown of the marriage;
• When one or both spouses are psychologically incapacitated to comply with the essential marital obligations; and
• When the spouses suffer from irreconcilable differences that have caused the irreparable breakdown of the marriage.
Obviously, these grounds will not make the Philippines another Las Vegas, where one could get married in the morning and get divorced in the afternoon, as a former President once said to oppose the bill.
Divorce has been recognized as a legitimate option for couples, particularly for women, who are trapped in unhappy, even violent, unions. As Lagman has put it, “most marriages are supposed to be solemnized in heaven, the reality is that many marriages plummet into hell.”
Marriage is a choice. Separation is a choice. Divorce should be a choice. To deny divorce is akin to denying a right to get out of a troubled marriage, in pursuit of liberty and happiness.