[PHOTO - So ordered. House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. (inset) bangs the gavel to end the debate on the Reproductive Health bill. LINO SANTOS]

MANILA, AUGUST 7, 2012 (STANDARD) ‘Conscience vote’ wins!  By Maricel Cruz -The House of Representatives on Monday voted overwhelmingly to end the plenary debates on the Reproductive Health bill, setting the stage for a vote on 2nd reading and dealing a blow to the Catholic Church, which has lobbied heavily against the measure.

Voting viva voce, the lawmakers carried the motion of House Leader Neptali Gonzales II to end the period of debates on the consolidated version of the bill, which will be known as the Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act of 2011, if it is passed.

[PHOTO -Pass it now! Women from the Akbayan Party express their support for the Reproductive Health bill in front of the House of Representatives. MANNY PALMERO]

The supporters of the bill threw the opposition off balance by pushing for the termination of the debates Monday instead of Tuesday as scheduled. Some 249 of the 285 lawmakers were present, including former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who opposes the bill.

Gonzales said the decision to move the vote up was made at a caucus in the Palace by Liberal Party leaders and members. President Benigno Aquino III met earlier in the day with some 182 lawmakers in a bid to push the bill forward. The closed-door meeting lasted about an hour.

With Monday’s vote, Gonzales said, the House will form a special committee to work on the amendments to the bill for second reading, which is expected in the next few days.

But in the plenary, Navotas Rep. Tobias Tiangco demanded that they hold a nominal vote, causing a suspension of the session.

The anti-RH lawmakers led by Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, Batangas Rep. Hermilando Mandanas, Manila Rep. Amado Bagatsing, and Zambales Rep. Maria Milagros Magsaysay accused the House leaders of rushing to end the plenary debates that began in May 2011.

Rodriguez said he had yet to finish questioning the bill’s authors, while Bagatsing said it was unlucky to vote on Aug. 6 because that was the number of the devil.

Magsaysay accused the Palace of railroading the bill’s approval and asked why lawmakers were in a hurry to end the debates that started more than a year ago. She also said the decision to move up the vote by a day was a sign that the House was under Malacanang’s thumb.

The House leadership just showed that now that Congress is under the Executive branch and is not a co-equal branch,” she said.

But the 11 members of the minority who met with the President, led by Minority Leader Danilo Suarez, Occidental Mindoro Rep. Amita Villarosa, and Davao del Sur Rep. Mark Cagas, also agreed to end the period of debate, said Eastern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone, a member of Mr. Aquino’s Liberal Party.

Evardone also said the President had assured lawmakers at Monday’s lunch meeting that he would “respect divergent views” when Congress moved to discuss the proposed amendments to the bill.

Muntinlupa City Rep. Rodolfo Biazon, meanwhile, accused the anti-RH lawmakers of trying to derail the bill by asking repetitive questions during the plenary debates.

He said Congress needed to come up with a national policy on reproductive health, and that the Catholic Church should be able to respect its mandate.

The presiding speaker, Camarines Sur Rep. Arnulfo Fuentebella, said Monday’s vote did not reflect the merits or demerits of the bill, but only whether the House would end the period of debates.

Earlier, the bill’s principal author, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, said the President had suggested that the members of the House vote according to their conscience.

Lagman said that would mean the lawmakers would have to find the courage to make a decision and not to be cowed by intimidation of the threat of reprisals at the polls.

“The President also cautioned that the bahala na attitude results in inordinately large families, and that presidential prescription adopts the call for children by choice, not by chance,” Lagman said.

Mr. Aquino “expressed his desire that Congress move on to the next step in the legislative process,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.

“The President echoed the view that the responsible parenthood measure had been discussed thoroughly over the pass several years,” Lacierda said.

“The President expressed his opinion on the…bill and had a healthy discussion with congressmen with different persuasions and positions. All sides were heard and considered. Even minority congressmen and those opposed to the measure were given the opportunity to air their side.”

The build-up to this week’s vote was marked by intense lobbying on both sides.

Gonzales said the sugestion to move the vote forward to Monday actually came from Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez, an anti-RH congressman, to avoid “an acrimonious environment.”

“It was the consensus that we better avoid the clash between the pro- and anti-RH supporters in Tuesday’s voting. Baka magkabatuhan pa diyan,” Gonzales said, referring to the possibility of violence from either camp.

At the session hall, House security separated the pro- and anti-RH supporters. The purple-clad pro-RH supporters were seated at the North Gallery, while the anti-RH supporters wearing red sat at the South Gallery.

Mrs. Arroyo, in a red suit, was accompanied by her sons Camarines Sur Rep. Diosdado Macapagal and Ang Galing Pinoy Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo.

Gonzales said he could not say when the amendments to the bill would be scheduled.

“Let’s take it one day at a time,” he said.

Earlier, Liberal Party Senator Franklin Drilon said the Senate would await the results of the House vote before proceeding with its version of the bill.

Drilon said the Senate terminated its plenary debates when it adjourned in May.

“In the Senate, we are in the period of amendments. My position is we vote on the Senate version once the House would act on the RH bill,” he said.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who is against the bill, wants to reopen the period of debates.

Also on Monday, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, a network of more than 30,000 evangelical congregations, reiterated its call for the immediate consolidation and passing of House Bill 4244, more commonly known as the reproductive health bill.

“We call on our legislators to end the debates and to vote for its approval. We wholeheartedly support President Aquino’s statement that ‘Perhaps the debates should end and Congress can decide, once and for all, on the responsible parenthood bill,” said Bishop Efraim Tendero, national director of the group.

In contrast to the Catholic Church, the group said the RH bill was “pro-life, pro-development and pro-poor.” With Christine F. Herrera, Joyce Pangco Pañares and Macon Ramos-Araneta

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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