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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Manny Pacquiao and the pro-RH Contempt Brigade

Published in Business Mirror on May 20, 2011:

Lourdes M. Fernandez

Wednesday night’s debate between Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao and reproductive-health (RH) bill chief author Edcel Lagman has gotten not a few usual “experts” brimming with contempt as they assessed the young boxing icon’s performance on the floor, scoffing at his presumptuousness that he could take on a veritable “lion” in Congress.

“Like a robot.” “Questions were scripted.” “He repeated some questions” were some of the remarks reporters got from those they interviewed for reactions right after the session was adjourned on Wednesday night—a discourse that, fortunately enough, turned out to be quite civil, a rebuke to those who predicted histrionics and blood.

Lagman obviously relished the drama of the moment, intoning, before the interpellation by the English-challenged but sensible Pacquiao, that he was “ready to rumble” and would not “run away” like Shane Mosley, Pacquiao’s most recent vanquished foe.

But Pacquiao was somber, and asked the questions that mattered, notwithstanding insinuations he must have been fed the questions. Some commentators demanded to know who wrote his speech, as if there was something wrong in politicians having speeches written for them, or getting technical inputs from various groups before they go on the floor.

If anything, the pro-RH group should even thank him for playing right into the trap obviously laid out for someone of his star power: for every major issue against the consolidated bill’s current version that Pacquiao raised, Lagman would rebut him by saying such and such provision has been scrapped or “amended,” a remark contested later by one congressman who said the period of amendments was not yet over. What Lagman was pointing to actually was a March 15, 2011, letter he sent, as chief author, to Rep. Rogelio Espina, chairman of the House population and family relations committee, detailing amendments he and his group were inserting into the consolidated version (in all, six bills had been filed) of House Bill 4244.

The March 15 letter is replete with references to the controversies spawned by the provisions of the consolidated bill that Lagman, et al. sought to amend, obviously because they wanted to scrap items that have been lightning rods for the RH bill critics. If these were “amended” or virtually scrapped, isn’t that a signal that, one, the provision was admittedly controversial and possibly indefensible or hard to justify? And two, that it’s not worth defending these certain provisions if only to save the bill?

That process alone of “amending” the consolidated version clearly manifests that almost all the issues raised by Pacquiao on the floor on Wednesday night were worth raising—they were not idle concerns, they were not bogeys, they were not invented by some shrill, fringe, fundamentalist group out to exploit the world boxing idol’s star power. And you can see how, for all the prejudgment he has been subjected to, that Pacquiao knows his role here, away from the boxing ring: I was elected to represent a constituency, and it’s my duty to raise questions that people have about this bill. In short, masama bang magtanong?

The Lagman group may gloat that Pacquiao was “knocked out” because most of the issues he raised against the bill have been addressed, i.e., amended or diluted, reworded or scrapped. And chided the boxer credited with stopping crime whenever he has a bout by saying, “when these amendments were being made, Pacman was busy training for his next bout.” As if the world knew, except for Pacquiao, that Lagman had “cured” the bill of these provisions. Well, up until a few days before the debates opened, some sources said this March 15 letter of amendments had not been made public, or posted on the Internet promptly, as his camp claims. Even assuming it was posted early, it still benefited the bill’s authors for Pacman to raise the questions, because he unwittingly gave them a chance to gloat that several controversial provisions he had raised were no longer in the bill, per the March 15 “amendments letter” to Espina.

In short, Lagman was able to gloat that his bill was not as bad as Pacquiao painted it to be, because he was smart enough to delete precisely the provisions that he knew could give the anti-RH camp ammunition in the debates. This is the beauty of a long-drawn lawmaking process—the authors get some fresh air listening to critics, and can change their work accordingly.

An important sidelight: Few people know that, long before Manny Pacquiao boldly stepped into the breach to champion the anti-RH camp’s cause, a big fan of his, then-Makati Rep. Teddyboy Locsin, had prepared well to do battle with Lagman. Locsin wrote a line-by-line critique of one of the first versions of the bill, and was supposed to debate with Lagman on the House floor two years ago. For time constraint, that did not materialize and Locsin’s brilliant paper, serialized in the BusinessMirror later, was entered into the House record. It is there, for anyone interested to know how such a controversial bill has evolved, mainly because of the passionate, intelligent efforts to shine a light on not just every line of the bill, but its unstated intent and unintended implications, as well.

In sum, the critique of the Lagman bill two years ago focused on three major points: one, the mercantilist nature of the bill, i.e., it vows to protect women’s health but gives giant pharma makers of contraceptive devices a captive market using huge taxpayer funds; two, the coercive tone of the bill, in terms of the impositions it makes both on health workers dealing with reproductive- health cases and on parents of minors who have their own views on sex education; and three, related to the third, the criminal aspects of the bill, on those deemed to be spreading “misinformation” about the government’s family- planning program, something that has raised the hackles of free-expression advocates, sarado Katoliko or not.

Locsin, who has bravely defended the Catholic Church from the Contempt Brigade even as he has scathingly criticized bishops on certain issues, noted the “fine distinction that the Lagman group had made in espousing “quality” over “quantity” of life—a dangerous line, Teddyboy said, that could morph into a utilitarian view of life, and an anti-poor bias. To his credit, Pacman stood his ground on Wednesday, when Lagman smugly dismissed one issue he raised and said that it had been “amended.” Pacman pointed to his paper and said, “nandito pa, o.” To which Lagman said, “Itaga mo sa bato, mawawala na iyan.”

The Contempt Brigade was quick to dismiss the efforts of the man who fit their bill of a little-educated up-start daring to get into a different kind of ring with an intellectual. Yet maybe, at the end of the day, we would all be better off by reining in our instincts to be contemptuous, whether we are pro- or anti-RH, considering how complicated the RH debates can be.

As the evolution of the original bill, its six other incarnations and its consolidated—“amended” and otherwise—has shown, lawmaking requires homework for all sides. And most crucial, the ability to understand and explain, the courage to speak up, and the humility and mental honesty to listen and correct. That it took a brave boxer to bring us back to that level of discourse speaks volumes of how, sometimes, the withering contempt of the mob—on either side of a debate—can stifle intelligent discussions and paralyze the sincere debaters with fear of being shamed. If only for that, Wednesday night is a “knockout” blow for public interest.

Fernandez is founding editor of the BusinessMirror and is now managing editor of

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