Sun Star Manila - Senate 'divided' over RH bill - Virgil Lopez

Either pro or anti-Reproductive Health bill advocates still do not have the magic number of 13 to pass or archive the proposed measure in the 23-member Senate, one of its leaders said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters, Senator Jinggoy Estrada said his latest count would show that 10 are currently in favor of Senate Bill 2865, 10 are opposed, while three, including him, are still undecided.

He said two of the senators who have no position yet on the controversial bill -- opposed by the Catholic Church for its provisions on distribution of contraceptives and sex education -- are gunning for reelection in May 2013.

Estrada declined to give the names but the senators who are set to run again are Loren Legarda, Antonio Trillanes IV, Francis Escudero, Aquilino Pimentel III, and Gregorio Honasan II.

Honasan is a known ally of Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile and Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III, who are the vocal critics of the bill.

Pressed by media if the figures are based on a caucus with senators, Estrada refused again to dish out more details except that different groups are lobbying for his support.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, whose second consecutive term is expiring next year, earlier counted 14 colleagues willing to vote affirmatively.

The Senate has entered the period of amendments of the bill after Sotto concluded his four-part anti-RH speech on Wednesday.

Among the early amendments include the insertion of a provision saying "abortion is a criminal act in accordance with existing laws," and the adding of a provision for the National Drug Formulary System to select family planning supplies to be included in the essential drugs list.

In the House of Representatives, a leader hopes President Benigno Aquino III would "arbitrate" in the discussions on the RH bill or even enjoin Congress to pass the highly divisive measure into law.  

"He needs to arbitrate so that there will be a sense of direction on the RH bill," House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II said Thursday.
Gonzales made the statement after Catholic bishops and several lawmakers opposed to the RH measure refused to accept a proposed amendment that would highlight the bill as an anti-poverty measure.
The proposed amendment is set to be discussed in an informal technical working group (TWG) to be composed of representatives of the legislative and executive branch, and members of the Church.

If the anti-RH camp agrees to the amendment, the government will only distribute contraceptives to the poorest of the poor identified in the National Household Targeting System currently used for the implementation of the conditional cash transfer program.
A news release posted at the website of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), however, said that bishops are unlikely to join the TWG.  

Fr. Melvin Castro, executive secretary of the CBCP–Episcopal Commission on Family and Life, said the Church might instead send lay people.
"We haven't received any invitation to be part of this TWG but as far as I know, we will not participate," Castro said.

Castro said in a radio interview that CBCP will not change its position against the bill.

He said the concepts being pushed by the RH bill are those that simply cannot be supported by the Church.

He said these include the idea of promoting contraceptives, and depopulating the Philippines.

Cavite Representative Joseph Emilio Abaya, for his part, hopes that the TWG will avoid a marching order from the President considering that the RH bill is a legislative matter.
"He respects the independence of the two bodies of government. He merely requests. How effective and how convincing that request will be is all within his prerogative. If ever such strong requests will be made, I think there is time," said Abaya, the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Party.
Abaya, also the incoming secretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications, is against the enactment of an RH law.
"I'm pro-life. I have my own beliefs in it. I have been an active observant in all the discussions. I am hoping that there will be a middle-ground," he said.