In my column last week I ended with a postscript saying that this week I would write about the question whether a public official may impose his religious belief on those who follow a different set of beliefs. In response one of my readers wrote saying that he could not wait for what I had to say. And another suggested a piece on whether church can tell government what to do.
Actually, however, what I have to say is very simple; that is, very simple for those who accept that one of the fundamental tenets which our country lives by is the free exercise of religious profession and worship. I believe that freedom of religious profession and worship is a right of everyone no matter how bizarre his or her religious beliefs might be and provided that the externalization of one’s belief does no harm to any one.
Briefly, I would say that President Aquino should not prevent people from practicing responsible parenthood according to their religious belief nor may churchmen compel President Aquino, by whatever means, to prevent people from acting according to their religious belief.
I, and other churchmen I know, go by the teaching of the Compendium on the Social Teaching of the Church which says: “Because of its historical and cultural ties to a nation, a religious community might be given special recognition on the part of the State. Such recognition must in no way create discrimination within the civil or social order for other religious groups” and “Those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority.” I am glad, therefore, that President Aquino wants to bring non-Catholics into the dialogue.
In 2008 the debate on the Reproductive Health Bill was started but did not end. It was shelved for a while to give way to concerns about election. Now the debate has started again. I understand that there are now six or seven different bills filed in the House of Representatives all about reproductive health.
I sympathize with President Aquino who is being pushed into a corner by well-meaning people who believe that various provisions of proposed RH Bills are paving the path through which the Filipino people would be led to eternal damnation. What is my own take on the subject?
Of course, I am against eternal damnation for anybody. But I believe that we must be resigned to a long drawn out debate. Much as people would like their opponents to shut up, they will not shut up. The debate now is in media and in the House of Representatives. It is also beginning in the Senate. And even if Congress succeeds in crafting a bill which the President may be willing to sign, its various provisions will very likely take more time of the Supreme Court than the Cityhood laws have taken.
This should surprise no one because religion and the Constitution are very much involved in the debate. Religion and the Constitution are very much at the heart of the life of our people. Besides, debatable scientific terms and sociological issues are also involved.
In 2009 it was difficult for many, myself included, to be totally for or totally against the RH Bill because it had many facets. Today I am still awaiting the consolidated version of the various RH bills that have already been filed. I anticipate that what divided people then would still be present in whatever bill may finally come out for debate. The most that I would like to do now is to identify and enumerate some of the matters about which we will certainly disagree among ourselves.
I begin with the right to life. When does human life begin? We probably are all agreed that man must not destroy human life. Our Constitution protects life “from conception.” There is some indication in the deliberations of the 1987 Constitution Commission that this means “from fertilization”. But there are contrary views. Who will decide which view is correct?
The determination about the beginning of human life will also be relevant to the debate on abortion. Clearly abortion is prohibited and penalized by law. But when does abortion take place? At what stage of the reproductive process will interruption be considered an offense against life? At fertilization or only after implantation? Are there birth control devices or pills which are abortifacient? If so, in what way? There is debate about the abortifacient effect of some birth control means. Who is to settle this debate – Congress? Courts? Science? Church? Rallyists? I understand that the various pharmaceutical and medical literature on this are conflictive.
There is also debate about how and who should teach sexual morality to children. Sexual morality is very much an aspect of religion. But various religions differ in the their teaching about sexual morality. Should the state dictate what to follow and determine how this should be taught in schools, public or private? And what should be the role of parents in this? The Constitution recognizes the primary right of parents in the rearing of the youth.
Earlier versions of the RH bill also contained impositions on employers regarding the reproductive health of employees and also penal provisions. All these and more will need much discussion.
There are those who are threatening to mobilize groups into rallies against RH the bills. Rallies are good for election campaigns and other political objectives. But they are hardly the suitable vehicle for a rational examination of conflicting moral issues.
11 October 2010