Court halts RH law for 4 months

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

MANILA (Updated) -- The Supreme Court (SC) temporarily stopped on Tuesday the implementation of the Reproductive Health (RH) law, which is set to take effect on Easter Sunday, March 31.

The RH or Responsible Parenthood Law (Republic Act 10354), which provides state funding for contraceptives, was passed by lawmakers late last year despite the Church's opposition, but petitioners questioned its legality on several grounds, saying it offends religious beliefs and fosters abortion, which remains illegal in the country.

Voting 15-5 in favor of 10 separate petitions, the SC justices issued a status quo ante (SQA) order, which has the same effect of stopping an assailed ruling but is issued to preserve the status before the filing of a petition, said SC Public Information Office chief Theodore Te.

The 10 justices who voted for the issuance of the SQA were Associate Justices Presbitero Velasco Jr., Teresita Leonardo De Castro, Arturo Brion, Diosdado Peralta, Lucas Bersamin, Roberto Abad, Martin Villarama Jr., Jose Perez, Jose Mendoza and Bienvenido Reyes.

Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno joined Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Justices Mariano del Castillo, Estela Perlas Bernabe, and Marvic Leonen in the minority.

Te said the law’s implementation has been stopped until June 18, when both the government and 10 petitioners who questioned the law’s constitutionality will argue their cases before the court.

Last January, senatorial candidate Risa Hontiveros asked the Court to uphold the law's legality as she debunked claims that contraceptives, which will be distributed for free to poor women, are abortifacients.

The Catholic leaders also consider the law an attack on the Church's core values and said it promotes promiscuity and destroys life. The government said, however, that it helps the poor manage the number of children they have and provides for maternal health care.

Nearly half of all pregnancies in the Philippines are unwanted, according to the UN Population Fund, and a third of those end up aborted in back-alley clinics.

The Philippines has a population of 94 million and one of Asia's highest birth rates.

Malacañang, however, expressed confidence on Tuesday that the Aquino administration could fully defend the merits of the RH law, but said it respects the High Court's decision to stop its implementation for four months.

"We will observe the status quo ante order resolution issued by the Supreme Court and we are confident that the government will be able to defend the merits of the Responsible Parenthood Law," said presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda in a text message.

Supporters of the controversial law in the House of Representatives are also not at all worried about the roadblock set by the SC.

Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, the main proponent of then RH bill in the House, said the SQA issued is "only a temporary delay" to allow the SC "to fully assess the merits and demerits of the pending petitions challenging the constitutionality of the RH law."

"I firmly believe that eventually, the constitutionality of the RH law will be sustained. The RH advocates had prevailed in the legislative and executive departments, and they will likewise triumph in the High Court," Lagman said in a press statement.

Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the House respects the Court and hopes that the implementation of the RH law will be decided upon immediately.

"We respect the status quo ante order issued today by the Supreme Court on the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health law. This is well within the court’s power and just a temporary setback. I am hopeful the main issues will be deliberated on so that these can be resolved as soon as possible," Belmonte said in a statement.

Aurora Representative Sonny Angara, an administration candidate whose name was included in the so-called "Team Patay" campaign of the diocese of Bacolod, said the SC's decision does not mean that the justices have already voted in favor of the pro or anti.

"I think that's customary and normal to give the court enough time to decide on the issue," said Angara, also a lawyer.

Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr., however, found the schedule of the oral argument suspicious.

"At the onset, I'm disappointed. It's bad enough majority of the SC voted to suspend the implementation but why wait until June for oral argument to be heard when this has been one of the most debated laws in history of Congress?" said Baguilat, also the deputy spokesperson for the ruling Liberal Party.

President Benigno Aquino III risked the clash with the Church and Church-backed politicians to sponsor the law and lobby for its passage. He signed the law in December, and the Department of Health last week drafted and approved its implementing rules, setting it into motion.

The law makes sexual education compulsory in public schools, and mandates government health centers to provide universal and free access to nearly all contraceptives to everyone, particularly the country's poorest, who make up a third of the population.

So far, such access has been patchy, expensive, and hinged on the political will of local governments. In the past, for instance, some mayors banned free distribution of condoms in their areas. (Virgil Lopez/Kathrina Alvarez/SDR/AP/Sunnex)

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