STAR SCIENCE COLUMN:  ARGUMENTS CONTRA AND PRO RH BILL


MANILA, SEPTEMBER 30, 2011 (STAR SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY) STAR SCIENCE By Ernesto M. Pernia, Ph.D. - While the Reproductive Health (RH) bill failed to make the hurdle during previous session of the 14th Congress, it seems to be making some headway in the current session owing to a more favorable disposition of the new national leadership. Still, public debate remains heated. It’s time to take stock of the arguments contra and pro RH (or Responsible Parenthood) bill.

Those opposed to the bill assert that the Philippines does not have a population problem and that the focus of public policy should instead be on the corruption problem. They argue that a large population resulting from rapid population growth is, in fact, good for the economy. They add that attempts to slow population growth are ill-advised as they would only hasten the onset of the “demographic winter” or the problem of ageing currently experienced by the advanced countries in Europe. Moreover, the Catholic Church hierarchy and conservative religious groups assert that the RH bill is pro-abortion and is thus anti-life. This is because, in their view, modern contraceptives — which the RH bill proposes to make available along with the traditional methods (including “natural family planning”) — are abortifacient.

Those in favor of the bill cite the conventional argument that slower population growth facilitates economic growth, poverty reduction, and preservation of the environment, as clearly shown by the experience of the other East and Southeast Asian countries. Economic growth is facilitated by higher private and public savings — owing to slower growth of the youth dependents — required for investment in human capital (i.e., spending on education and health per person) and infrastructure. Slower population growth combined with faster economic growth leads to significant poverty reduction, human development, and lower inequality. And slower population growth lessens the stress on the environment.

Furthermore, the pro-RH bill advocates invoke household survey data showing that women — poor women in particular — are having more children than they want and can adequately provide for. Poor women are unable to achieve their desired number of children due to lack of access to affordable modern and effective family planning methods. Unintended or mistimed pregnancies result in most of about 560,000 induced and illegal abortions annually, such that improved access to modern and effective contraceptive methods could substantially reduce such illegal abortions. This implies that, contrary to the claim of those who oppose the RH bill, it is in fact anti-abortion and is pro-life. Indeed, the bill expressly prohibits abortion.

The argument of those who oppose the bill that there is no population problem is borne out neither by serious empirical research nor by public opinion surveys. While rapid population growth may not be considered the main cause of the country’s economic backwardness, it is among the major factors contributing to the problem. True, corruption is probably the country’s primordial challenge but it cannot be the sole focus of the country’s development effort. Corruption in varying degrees has also plagued many of our Asian neighbors but they have managed to achieve economic dynamism nonetheless, with sound population policy complementing reasonable economic policies.

Moreover, the argument that a large population resulting from rapid growth is good for the economy is starkly contra factum (i.e., without factual basis). If, indeed, that were true, the Philippines, whose population (along with Nepal’s and Pakistan’s) has been growing the fastest in Asia should have the most prosperous economy and with minimal poverty. Alas, these three countries are the region’s spectacularly laggard economies.

The fear of a “demographic winter” seems highly exaggerated. Simple demographic analysis would show that, if the average number of children per woman (currently 3.3 children) drops to the replacement level of 2.1 (expected to occur by 2035-2040), it would take another 60 years or so before Philippine population ceases to grow, by which time population could total about 178 million under a “business as usual scenario.” To illustrate, while South Korea, China and Thailand had reached the 2.1 fertility replacement level prior to or in the 1990s, they continue to grow owing to “demographic momentum” (i.e., large numbers of couples entering or already in their reproductive ages). And, certainly, these countries will have the resources and be better prepared to deal with problems associated with ageing.

The assertion that the RH bill is pro-abortion and anti-life is an opinion that cannot be imposed as dogma. In fact, there is no unanimity — not even among theologians — on the question of when life does begin. The official view of the World Health Organization is that pregnancy starts after, not before, the fertilized ovum settles down in the uterus to become viable. Contraceptives, by definition, prevent ovulation, fertilization or implantation in the uterus. Hence, they cannot be regarded categorically as abortifacient or anti-life. (See the very recent Medical Experts’ Declaration on Contraceptives.)

So, what’s the score on the RH debate? It appears that the arguments contra are largely assertions based on ideology rather than on empirical research. Gratis asseritur, gratis negatur (“What is freely asserted can be freely denied”). By contrast, the arguments pro appear anchored on empirical studies and further consistently supported by inter-temporal public opinion surveys.

The population issue is long dead and buried in developed and most developing countries, including historically Catholic countries. If the government abides by the age-old dictum Salus populi suprema lex (“The welfare of the people is the supreme law”), it cannot continue to play blind to the merits of the RH bill just to accommodate the demands of the conservative religious groups. Such an accommodation largely explains why the bill continues to be debated and hang in the balance in Congress.

The passage or non-passage of the bill will significantly affect people’s lives one way or the other. Based on reliable public opinion surveys, it will matter to people how their elected representatives vote on the bill, as it seems to have mattered to the outcome of the 2010 elections.

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Ernesto M. Pernia, Ph.D., is with the UP School of Economics in Quezon City and a former lead economist of the Asian Development Bank. E-mail at empernia@skybroadband.com.ph.

PHILIPPINE STAR HEADLINE NEWS TODAY

'Slow pace of debates means no RH bill OK' By Marvin Sy (The Philippine Star) Updated September 28, 2011 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III claimed yesterday that the slow pace of the debates would make the passage of the Reproductive Health (RH) bill this year very unlikely.

Sotto said that at least eight senators are lined up for interpellations on the RH bill and at the pace of the debates, it would take several more months for every member to say his or her piece.

Congress is going on a break in the middle of next month and would resume session in November so there is little time left between now and the break to accommodate all of the senators interested in participating in the debates.

Sotto, who along with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, is strongly opposed to the RH bill, said that Senators Sergio Osmeña III, Ralph Recto, Panfilo Lacson, Ramon Revilla Jr., Loren Legarda, Manuel Lapid Jr. and Francis Escudero have been lined up for the debates.

“So we could not finish the interpellations before the break this October,” Sotto said.

In spite of his opposition to the bill, Sotto said that he has no intention of ending the debates and would in fact still set the continuation of interpellations this November.

However, even one of the sponsors of the bill, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, had accepted that the debates would not be completed within the year because when Congress resumes session this November, priority would be given to deliberations on the proposed P1.8-trillion national budget for 2012.

Sotto said that he wants the debates to continue so that the public would be enlightened about what the measure is all about and, based on his own opinion, would see that the bill is unnecessary.

“This is the first bill in the history of the country that divides the nation. This is dividing the people,” Sotto said.

He said that he was not against the objectives of the bill as stated by its sponsors Santiago and Sen. Pia Cayetano, particularly providing RH services to women, especially the poor.

“We can provide them these services but we don’t need to pass a new law for this,” he said.

Sotto said that by his own count, there are eight senators who are against the measure, another eight who are neutral and seven who are in favor of the bill.

He said that he is certain that aside from Santiago and Cayetano, the other senators who are supporting the bill are Francis Pangilinan, Lacson, Osmeña, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Edgardo Angara.

Sotto noted that there is no party stand on this measure, particularly the Liberal Party, even though the administration has included it among its priority bills. He said that he believes President Aquino is neutral on the RH issue.

“Let us just strengthen the existing laws but not giving P3 billion for the purchase of condoms. So many people are already suffering from hunger. Can these contraceptives help alleviate their hunger?” Sotto said.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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