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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How the RH bill can lead to witch hunts versus pro-lifers

Published this week on the New Katipunero website:

Butch Junia

Any violation of the Reproductive Health Act or commission of any of the acts prohibited therein shall be penalized with imprisonment ranging from one month to six months or a fine of P10,000 to P50,000, or both, depending on the discretion of the court.

That is clearly and ominously provided in Sec. 29 of HB 4244, “An act providing for a comprehensive policy on responsible parenthood, reproductive health, and population and development, and for other purposes”, or the RH Bill.

As far as I can recall, and I do not claim a long memory or deep knowledge of state policies, this is the only development policy I know that has penal and punitive provisions. Violation of this policy has been criminalized.

Significant Loss

Anyway, this particular column, my wrap-up on RH, should have come out in OpinYon last week when Congress was still in session and the sponsorship of the Lagman Report was on-going. Glitches and goofs, all mine, and an unplanned excursion, made me miss my deadline.

But as we go to press now, the House, too, missed its target to railroad RH on its first regular session, so that kind of make us even – the House and I.

Further, Sec. 29 says: “If the offender is a public official or employee, he or she shall suffer the accessory penalty of dismissal from government service and forfeiture of retirement benefits.”

In effect, more than the fines, the public official pays additionally by forfeiting even the contributory portion of his retirement benefits, a significant loss considering that the retirement package is mostly funded by the official’s personal contributions.

I do not know if government employees are aware of this, and I am not if sure they will still go with this bill once they know the prohibitions and the violations they could possibly be held for.

Undesirable, Irresponsible

Well, if we must look for an upside in this one, we can use this law to finally rid government ranks of undesirables who have so far dodged accountability under stringent anti-graft laws.

They may not get off as easily under the RH Bill dismissal and forfeiture provisions.

Here is the punitive measure I particularly like: “If the offender is a juridical person, the penalty shall be imposed upon the president or any responsible officer (of the company).”

We can see all of these companies appointing “responsible officers” for RH, to insulate their president from liability, but I wonder if jail time will be part of the job description when they seek out new hires. I bet this will be the most-avoided spot in the corporate ladder.

Golden Handcuff

On the other hand, the company CEOs and presidents can use this jail risk to leverage more and better stock options, additional perks, and even a ”golden handcuff”, in case they actually have to go to jail.

Would the increase in costs from all these perks not result in higher prices to consumers, another of the unintended effects of the RH bill?

In any case, the top honchos used to VIP treatment may not have to give up their perks, after all. They will have their pick in the kubols recently vacated and could run their company from their iPhones and iPads in jail.

For starters in this front, we can focus on the executives of the suppliers of so-called RH devices, who could very easily violate one or the other principle or objective of this proposed law, given its vagueness and many inherent contradictions.

Violations, Prohibitions

What are these violations and prohibitions?

As a matter of state policy, Sec. 24 mandates: “The government shall guarantee the right of any person to provide or receive non-fraudulent information about the availability of reproductive health care services, including family planning and prenatal care.”

Sec. 2 declares: “The State likewise guarantees universal access to medically safe, legal, affordable, effective and quality reproductive health care services, methods, devices, supplies and relevant information and education thereon even as it prioritizes the needs of women and children, among other underprivileged sectors.”

Sec. 10 provides: “Products and supplies for modern family planning methods shall be part of the National Drug Formulary and the same shall be included in the regular purchase of essential medicines and supplies of all national and local hospitals and other government health units.”

Not to be taken lightly

On the foregoing policies alone, how many hospital directors, staff and an infinite number of other public officials and medical professionals do we send to jail? When a government facility fails to provide a modern family planning device, will the hospital director go to jail for it?

The policies that can be violated are sweeping and broad, and a resolute complainant, with good legal advice, can find the peg to hang any target of choice.

The prohibited acts for public and private healthcare service providers are as follows: 1) “knowingly withhold information and restrict the dissemination thereof, or intentionally provide incorrect information regarding programs and services on reproductive health, including the right to informed choice and access to a full range of legal, medically safe and effective family planning methods." 2) "Refuse to perform legal and medically safe reproductive health procedures on any person of legal age on the ground of lack of third party consent or authorization.” 3) "Refuse to extend health care services and information on account of the person’s marital status, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, personal circumstances, or nature of work,” with an escape proviso for a conscientious objector.

I would advise those within the definition of healthcare providers, which is also in the proposed law, to read this bill very closely.

Jail time and a big fine should not be taken lightly.

Very Broad Scope

Under prohibited acts, any public official who, personally or through a subordinate, restricts the delivery of legal and medically safe reproductive health care services shall also be liable, again, a very sweeping prohibition, considering the very broad scope of health services it covers. Even the bill itself waffles on what modern family planning methods are.

As for employees being enjoined from discriminatory practices, there are safeguards against these in welfare and labor legislation, but since the penal provision gives this more teeth, we will be good with this one.

The most chilling prohibition is Sec. 28 (e), as follows: “Any person who maliciously engages in disinformation about the intent of the provisions of this Act”.

At another time, this would have gotten media hopping mad at this clear incursion on press freedom and the bare-knuckled attempt at prior restraint. Apparently, this is not one of those times.


In any case, the proposed law should have a clear frame of reference for what constitutes disinformation.

As we all know, there is much diversity of opinion on many key aspects of reproductive health, as demonstrated in the recent floor debate between Rep. Anthony Golez, interpellator, and Rep. Janet Garin, sponsor, both medical professionals, on the beginning of life. On what school of thought will an official hang; by which opinion will he be sent to the gallows?

Worst yet, the proposal is a hodgepodge of so-called “intents”: economic, social, medical, political, etc. such that you cannot make any comment without touching on one or another putative intent.

In ancient Rome, the sovereigns perpetuated their reign by inventing lese majeste, which criminalized any commentary on the sovereign.

This self-perpetuating proviso of the RH Bill is in the same genre as lese majeste. And if the RH bill is already law, IF and not WHEN it passes, I will have trepidations writing as I now do.

A friend said this proviso, reminiscent of the lamented McCarthyist era, can lead to a witch hunt.

I said no, it will be a man hunt: A Lagman Hunt!

(The rest of the column is about other matters...)

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