The RH Law: The Debate Continues

It took thirteen years, four months, and five days of heated debates and passionate protests before the country’s first reproductive health law was passed. Four days shy of Christmas last year, President Aquino finally signed the 24-page bill into law. It is now Republic Act No. 10354 or The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (RH Law).

The passing of the RH Law, however, does by no means close this chapter of Philippine history. In fact, the legal ramifications plaguing the law are more prevalent than ever since the provisions thereof now have force and effect. The following discusses the significant provisions of the law and the issues surrounding them.

Reproductive Health Services

Section 7 of the RH Law provides that health care facilities, either public or private, are required to offer modern family planning methods to patients:

SEC. 7. Access to Family Planning. – All accredited public health facilities shall provide a full range of modern family planning methods…Provided, That family planning services shall likewise be extended by private health facilities to paying patients with the option to grant free care and services to indigents, except in the case of non-maternity specialty hospitals and hospitals owned and operated by a religious group…Provided, finally, That the person is not in an emergency condition or serious case as defined in Republic Act No. 8344. (emphasis supplied)

The law used the term “shall” to express the mandatory nature of the provision. The Supreme Court in the case of Tan v. Link (G.R. No. 172849, December 10, 2008) ruled that “the term ‘shall’ is a word of command, one which has always been or which must be given a compulsory meaning, and it is generally imperative or mandatory.”

The mandatory nature of the provision is further buttressed by Section 23 of the RH Law, which provides that it is a prohibited act for any health care service provider to withhold information on reproductive health. Although the law exempts non-maternity specialty hospitals and hospitals owned and operated by a religious group from this requirement, this exemption is nevertheless subject to the qualification that the patient must not be an emergency condition or a serious case. In effect, doctors cannot exempt themselves from the RH law if the patient involved is an emergency condition.

A legal issue arising from this is whether or not it violates a doctor’s Constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

The pro-RH argues that there is no violation because a doctor should separate his or her religious beliefs from the exercise of his or her profession. Moreover, exempting certain doctors from the law based solely on their religious beliefs would result in a violation of the non-establishment clause because it is effectively an endorsement by the State of a religion.

As for the anti-RH, they contend that one’s religious belief cannot be separated from one’s daily existence. Number 353 of Fr. Jose Maria Escriva’s book The Way best exemplifies their point—that it is absurd to think that one can leave one’s Catholicism aside upon entering a professional association like a man leaving his hat at the door.

Sex Education

The RH Law also made reproductive health education for adolescents aged 10 to 19 mandatory in all schools. The pertinent provision provides:

SEC. 14. Age- and Development-Appropriate Reproductive Health Education. – The State shall provide age- and development-appropriate reproductive health education to adolescents which shall be taught by adequately trained teachers informal and nonformal educational system and integrated in relevant subjects…

The legal issues arising from this provision are:

(1) Whether or not it is contrary to the constitutional right and duty of parents over the “rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and development of moral character,” (Art. II, Sec. 12 of the 1987 Constitution) and;

(2) Whether or not it violates the right of spouses “to found a family in accordance with their religious convictions and the demands of responsible parenthood.” (Art. XV, Sec. 3 of the 1987 Constitution)

The pro-RH proffers the argument that no Constitutional rights are violated because the Constitution does not award parents absolute authority over their children and that the State also has the constitutional obligation to promote and protect the physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and social well-being of the youth.

Arguments against the RH law, on the other hand, say that the State has no right to intrude upon the right of parents to rear their children according to their religious convictions. Quoting the petition filed by the spouses Imbong questioning the RH Law before the Supreme Court, “responsible parenthood is embraced in [the] religious belief on life and family and its exercise is tied to religious convictions, hence, religious belief on parenting is to be respected, not provoked into its violation.… This installs a ‘hands off’ paradigm upon the State. It may not intrude into what is a natural spousal and family right.”

Certificate of Compliance

The RH Law also introduced a new requirement for couples intending to get married:

SEC. 15. Certificate of Compliance. – No marriage license shall be issued by the Local Civil Registrar unless the applicants present a Certificate of Compliance…

Questions arise as to the effect of the Certificate of Compliance on the already existing requisites of marriage. Is it an additional formal requisite? What is the effect on the validity of a marriage license in case no Certificate was presented? Is the marriage void if the license was issued without this requirement?

One view is that (1) it is not an additional formal requisite, (2) it does not render the marriage license invalid in case of its absence, and (3) it does not render the marriage void if the requirement is not present.

These conclusions are based on the Latin phrase Semper praesumitur pro matrimonio, which translates to “always presume marriage.” In the case of Alcantara v. Alcantara (G.R. No. 167746, August 28, 2007), the Supreme Court held that “every intendment of the law or fact leans toward the validity of the marriage bonds. The Courts look upon this presumption with great favor. It is not to be lightly repelled; on the contrary, the presumption is of great weight.”

It is clear, therefore, that the validity of marriage is regarded highly by the Court. Since the law is silent as to the repercussions of the Certificate of Compliance, any doubt should be presumed in favor of the validity of marriage.

The constitutional questions mentioned above have already been brought to the Supreme Court. In fact, as of this writing, six petitions are currently resting in the Court’s dockets. Indeed, the tussle is not over. It just moved to a different stage. Hopefully, when the High Court renders its decision, the debate on the RH Law’s legality would once and for all be settled.

(Teng Gerochi and Tanya Justine R. Baldovino co-authored this article.)