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PHL’s RH Law:  Obstacles mar passage, implementation

Being in a predominantly-Catholic country, passing the Reproductive Health Law was definitely not a walk in the park. And even with its passage, implementing the controversial measure is not easy as well, with a number of hurdles thrown its way.

The bill aiming to provide Filipinos with improved public access to natural and artificial family planning options, better maternal care, and youth education languished in the legislative mills for more than a decade.

After numerous committee hearings and heated debates between legislators and experts inside the halls of Congress and protest actions on the streets all over the country, the bill was finally able to pass the hurdles and get the approval of both the Senate and House of Representatives.

The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (Republic Act 10354) was enacted in December 2012 and signed by President Benigno Aquino III days later.

But oppositors of the RH Law, mostly religious grups and pro-life advocates, did not take the signing sitting down and questioned its constitutionality before the Supreme Court.

Voting 10-5, the SC issued on March 19, 2013 a 120-day status quo ante order  against the law's implementation. The SQA order was extended indefinitely in July 2013, with a vote of 8-7. 

A year later, the RH Law was finally given a go by the High Tribunal but many of its provisions, including the implementing rules, were declared unconstitutional

The SC, while preserving the core of the law which requires the state to deliver the full range of family planning services to the public, limited the scope of its coverage.

It struck down a provision in Section 7 which states the power of the government to oblige private hospitals and those owned by religious groups to refer patients to other facilities that offer reproductive health services.

Also declared unconstitutional was another provision in the same section that allows minors to avail of family planning services without parental consent if they have already given birth or suffered a miscarriage.

The SC, however, upheld the essence of the law embodied in Section 7, which requires the state to provide family planning services, including artificial contraceptives.

It states that “all accredited public health facilities shall provide a full range of modern family planning methods, which shall also include medical consultations, supplies and necessary and reasonable procedures for poor and marginalized couples having infertility issues who desire to have children.”

It added that hospitals “shall immediately refer the person seeking such care and services to another health facility which is conveniently accessible.”

It further states that no person, except minors, shall be denied information and access to family planning services, whether natural or artificial. Minors can also access family planning methods if their parents or guardians give them a written consent for it.

Also struck down were the provisions in Section 23 which states:

  • penalties for health care providers who fail to disseminate RH information or refer patients not in an emergency and life threatening case to another health care service provider, regardless of his or her religious beliefs;
  • punishment for government health workers who refuse to support RH programs or provide RH services to patients, regardless of his or her religious beliefs;
  • penalties for health service providers that require parental consent from minor patients who are not in an emergency or serious situation;
  • allowing a married individual, not in an emergency or life-threatening case... to undergo reproductive health procedures without the consent of the spouse

The SC also nullified portions of Section 17 on the rendering of pro-bono reproductive health services that "affect the conscientious objector in securing PhilHealth accreditation.”

But the legal obstacles in the implementation of the RH Law did not stop there.

In June 2014, the High Tribunal issued a temporary restraining order against the Department of Health from distributing and selling contraceptive implants which can prevent pregnancies up to three years.

This TRO prompted Congress to cut the budget of the DOH by nearly P1-billion.

Health Secretary Janette Garin first revealed the budget cut in a television interview, saying it will be a challenge to implement family planning programs in 2016 because the allocation for contraceptives was removed from the DOH’s 2016 budget.

Senator Pia Cayetano, an advocate of the Reproductive Health (RH) Law, said the lawmakers were not informed of the budget cut.

“This was not the third reading version we passed in the Senate, and neither was this major cut on reproductive health, which is a very important part of health care, revealed to us when we voted on the bicameral report,” Cayetano said.

The senator also said that details of the P1-billion cut were only made known after President Benigno Aquino III signed the General Appropriations Act on December 28, 2015 and after the DOH discovered it.

But Budget Secretary Florencio Abad assured the public that there is enough funding to implement the RH Law as he mentioned a number of sources DOH can draw funds to procure family planning commodities.

He said there is the carryover amount of P337.5 million from the 2015 budget for the health department’s Family Health and Responsible Parenting (FHRP) Program and DOH can supplement the needed funding for Family Planning Commodities from within the line item of the FHRP.

“From the P2.28 billion appropriation, the DOH can realign P300 million to Family Planning Commodities from one of the components of the FHRP,” Abad said in a press statement.

He added the DOH has historically managed to generate savings amounting to 16 to 17 percent of their budget every year.

“From the savings of their 2015 budget, the DOH can source the last P300 million that would complete the P900 million,” said the budget secretary.

Amid the obstacles faced, the Philippine Legislator's Committee on Population and Development Foundation Inc (PLCPD), an advocate on population and human development, lauded the Aquino administration for pushing for the RH Law.

"PLCPD recognizes that President Aquino's push for RH was pivotal in the enactment of RH Law, most important contribution in advancing RH in PH," PLCPD Executive Director Romeo Dongeto said in a press statement sent to GMA News Online.

He said they acknowledge that there are many challenges in the implementation such as budget cut for family planning commodities, difficulties of local government units in funding and actual implementation, Supreme Court TRO on Implanon, among others.

"This administration's efforts, including the formation of the National Implementation Team and regional teams, strengthening service delivery networks at the LGU level and many others, are strong foundations for effective implementation for the succeeding government," he said.

He said they also welcome President-elect Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncements supportive of reproduction health and its inclusion in his 10-point agenda, as well as the appointment of Cabinet officials who are pro-RH.

"These are positive signs that we can expect RH to be at the core of the next Philippine Development PlN and full commitment to the meaningful implementation of the law, including the required financial support and investments," he said.

"We also expect that the President will implement the law fully based on its principles, which are grounded on human rights, women's rights, and freedom of informed choice," added Dongeto. — RSJ, GMA News