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RH reference in SONA – was it an endorsement, advice or a joke?

Nearly thirty minutes into his third State of the Nation Address Monday, as RH advocates tweeted their fading hopes, President Aquino finally mentioned one of the most divisive issues of his administration: Responsible Parenthood. It's actually an official euphemism for the more politically loaded term "reproductive health." Stopping short of pushing for the passage of the so-called RH bill, which would mandate free distribution of contraceptives and sex education in public schools, Aquino instead bemoaned a growing population's outpacing the provision of resources: "We are ending the backlog in the education sector, but the potential for shortages remains as our student population continues to increase. Perhaps Responsible Parenthood can help address this." That was it. The brief reference to Responsible Parenthood was greeted by the longest applause during the speech and a standing ovation by about a third of the legislators and many of those in the gallery. But the magic of the moment quickly passed and some Reproductive Health supporters now want more than a passing allusion coated with vagueness. Mae Paner, more popularly known as political activist and Artist’s Revolution organizer Juana Change, called on the president to take a firmer stand, saying that an RH Bill delayed is an RH Bill denied. “Gusto kong ang presidente ko ay klaro at di nambibitin! Nagdidisisyon,” she said in an online interview with GMA News Online. The Filipino Freethinkers, an advocacy group that has confronted church conservatives opposing the RH bill, also tweeted that the mention was welcome, but that it shouldn’t stop at lip service. “Glad that PNoy voiced support for the #RHBill during the #SONA2012 but he needs to back his words up with action, with political will,” they said. Ringing endorsement On the other hand, Senator Pia Cayetano saw the statement as an endorsement. In an interview with GMA News Online, she said the message was very clear. “So what does that mean, that parents should be planning their families, right? No matter [how many] classrooms you build, if a parent will be having 10 children who they cannot afford to feed and send to school then we will always have a shortage,” she said. Cayetano had more to say on Twitter. She thanked the President and said she “understood his need to couch it in terms acceptable to some groups." The Senator also said that she thought it is the moral responsibility of every legislator to take a stand. Furthermore, she said she was satisfied with the SONA. "RH is RH no matter what name you call it. Time to vote on the RH bill!" she tweeted. The Philippine Legislators' Committee on Population and Development Foundation, Inc. (PLCPD), a staunch advocate of the Reproductive Health bill, also saw the reference as a ringing endorsement. “President Aquino’s endorsement of responsible parenthood is equivalent to the reproductive health and responsible parenthood measures pending in both Houses of Congress,” PLCPD said in a statement Tuesday.   PLCPD Executive Director Rom Dongeto said the President’s endorsement of responsible parenthood in his SONA is a strong message for legislators to act on the “life-saving” measure which has been pending in Congress for eleven years.   Dongeto stressed the importance of the bill being passed by the 15th Congress given the increase in maternal mortality and teenage pregnancies. Joking? However, vocal RH critic Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said the President’s mention of Responsible Parenthood does not equal support for it. In an interview with GMA News Online, the Senate Majority Leader said, “it’s not a priority of Malacañang.” Furthermore, Sotto, who gained fame as a comedian, said Aquino might have been joking. “I felt there was some levity in what he was saying: ‘Para di magkulang ang mga silya, baka magandang sagot ay responsible parenthood’. That’s all he said.” Sotto pointed out that “Responsible Parenthood” does not mean “RH bill." He did not think it was an endorsement at all. “I think the president gave a very safe statement. Some people wanted to think that it’s the RH bill that he was pertaining to, but I think it was advice,” he said.   Sotto also said that while there are some similarities with Responsible Parenthood and the Reproductive Health bill, like maternal care, protection of women and the unborn, he sees a big problem with the issue of contraceptives. “We’re all in favor of that, problem yung pambili ng contraceptives, P3 billion. And if you endorse abortifacients, then you’re coming up with a provision that is unconstitutional, and to the point that we feel we are consenting to abortion,” he said. In contrast to Cayetano, Sotto said he did not feel the president was urging legislators to pass the RH Bill, but said the senate will most likely vote on the issue come September. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile also said that while he understands that Responsible Parenthood is on the president’s wish list, he trusts the “president knows that all legislation is open to debate.” Link to Aquino's stand on Responsible Parenthood The government’s Official Gazette has made available the full transcript of Aquino’s nearly ninety-minute speech, in its original Filipino and translated into English. In both versions, “Responsible Parenthood” is in upper case and is a clickable link that leads to Aquino’s five-point position on the subject. According to the website, the Aquino’s stand is the following: 1. I am against abortion. 2. I am in favor of giving couples the right to choose how best to manage their families so that in the end, their welfare and that of their children are best served. 3. The State must respect each individual’s right to follow his or her conscience and religious convictions on matters and issues pertaining to the unity of the family and the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death. 4. In a situation where couples, especially the poor and disadvantaged ones, are in no position to make an informed judgment, the State has the responsibility to so provide. 5. In the range of options and information provided to couples, natural family planning and modern methods shall be presented as equally available. None of that of course was uttered in Aquino's speech, but the link from the transcript on the government website makes it clear that the President supports providing "modern methods," a reference to artificial contraceptives such as condoms, pills and IUDs. That is also what the RH bill aims to do. — DVM/HS, GMA News
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