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By Ronald Jabal The issue of the current Reproductive Health Bill remains a heated and controversial issue as the first RH bill that was ever filed in Congress. And the polemics between the pros and cons have always marred the passage of bill which remains crucial in population management - yet another policy issue that has remained elusive in a country that is exponentially expanding every year. Central to this RH bill is political dynamics of the numerous actors involved from agenda setting up to policy adoption. However, what are not normally highlighted in the numerous debates are the roles of Congressmen (both from the House of Representatives and the Senate) i.e. should Congressmen listen to the overwhelming sentiment of the population most of whom are voters or should they listen to themselves and adopt a personal stand on this issue which is not supportive of the majority’s sentiment. Clearly, the RH bill foregrounds the age-old dilemma of what is the real meaning of representative democracy. Some political theorists argued that the proper function of the representative assembly in a true democracy is not to initiate policies on its own but only to register the policy preferences of the popular majority it represents. This is sometimes called the Mandate Theory. In this view, as long as the representative assembly (i.e. Congress) confines itself to registering its constituent’s views, representation involves no significant departure from democratic principles. But when the assembly begins to make policy on its own, in either ignorance or in defiance of its constituents’ desires, it becomes a kind of oligarchy. But others argued it is neither possible nor desirable in modern nation. For those who espouse “independence” theory, the representative must initiate – and not merely register policies. For them, representatives should exercise their judgment on public affairs independently and without surrendering the final decisions to their constituents Clearly, this divide is shown in the RH bill debate. The recent nationwide survey of Pulse Asia (October 2008) on the RH bill shows a number of results that should prompt Congressmen in both Houses to adopt RH as part of its agenda and move to pass the bill. The survey results that could be use to facilitate passage of the RH bill are as follows: 1. The Pulse survey says a big majority of Filipinos (82%) thinks government should not only educate couples regarding modern methods of family planning (both natural and artificial) but also provide them with services and materials on these methods.
This view is articulated by big to overwhelming majorities (76% to 91%) in all geographic areas and socio-economic classes. In addition, exactly the same percentage says that it is the government’s duty to provide the people with knowledge, services, and materials on modern methods of family planning. Less than one in ten Filipinos (6% to 8%) disagrees with either view while indecision on these matters is expressed by 10% to 13% of Filipinos 2. The Pulse survey shows that about four in ten Filipinos (44%) say the government should pass a law specifying the number of children couples may have Only two in ten (19%) are undecided on the issue. Across geographic areas and socio-economic classes, big pluralities to small majorities (45% to 58%) in Metro Manila, the Visayas, Mindanao, and Classes D and E favor the idea of government passing a law on the number of children couples may have. 3. The Pulse survey also once again shatters the alleged fear of Congressmen and Senators of an overwhelmingly backlash from the Catholics if they publicly support the RH bill. Results show that while 49% of Filipinos say couples should follow what their religion tells them about family planning, 44% are ambivalent as regards the possibility of their church or religion influencing their vote for a candidate advocating modern family planning methods. This is a good indication that almost half of Filipinos are either ambivalent on the Church dictates or do not agree that couples are obliged to abide by the teachings of their religion on family planning 4. On top of the above-mentioned results, Congressmen and Senators should take refuge on the results that show when it comes to the impact of their church or religion on their decision as to whether or not to vote for a candidate supporting modern family planning methods, indecision is the predominant public sentiment at the national level (44%) and particularly in the rest of Luzon, the Visayas, and Classes D and E (42% to 52%). 5. Interestingly, Congressmen and Senators should take most important note of the results that show most Filipinos are aware of the reproductive health bill pending at the House of Representatives (68%) and are in favor of the bill (63%) and only 8% are not in favor and 29% are ambivalent on the matter. Majorities ranging from 56% in the Visayas to 79% in Class ABC are in favor of the bill. Surprisingly, those 8% of who not supportive of the bill is not 100% against it. Based on the survey results, among the 8% of Filipinos who do not favor the proposed legislation, additional survey findings show that: (1) 47% agree with the need to promote information and access to natural and modern family planning methods; (2) 69% agree with the provision of the bill recognizing the rights of women and couples to choose the family method they want; (3) about the same percentages either agree or disagree (36% versus 35%) with the inclusion of sex education in the school curricula; and (4) 44% believe government funds should be used to support modern family planning methods. Indecision on these issues is expressed by
20% to 33% of Filipinos while disagreement is articulated by 10% to 35%. Public disagreement is most manifest in relation to the proposal to include sex education in the school curricula (35%) If the survey results alone were to be used by Congressmen and Senators in the adoption of the RH agenda and its eventual passage, the RH bill will clearly pass both Houses and will soon be enacted into law. If both Houses of Congress were only to reflect the sentiments of the majority of the Filipinos most of which are voters (and who most probably voted them in office), then the RH bill’s passage is as sure as the rise of the morning sun. Wedges and Quirks in RH Bill Passage: The presence of partisan actors However, current members of both Houses of Congress do not simply wish to reflect the sentiment of the majority. There are various actors and issues that impinge and affect their decisions in adopting RH as part of the agenda. And we can chart the various “intervening” factors that one way or the other affects the passage of the RH bill using a number of conceptual frameworks and theories in agenda setting and policy formulation. Using the Kingdon model, we can readily see that there are numerous actors in the policy arena not just the general public. There are both visible and hidden actors in policy development. As follows:
Visible/ More Influential in AgendaSetting Government Actors1 a. President b. Legislators c. Political Appointees Nongovernment Actors a. Interest Groups b. Media (through shaping opinion) c. Election-related Participants public Hidden/ More Influential in Policy Alternatives Government Actors a. Presidential Staff b. Congressional Staff c. Career Civil Servants Nongovernment Actors a. Interest Groups b. Academics, Researchers, Consultants and
With the number of actors to contend with and face in the deliberations of the RH bill, surely, Senators and Congressmen are faced with a number of policy options and a wide array of influences that will eventually affect their decisions. Unfortunately, these actors do not think alike. They compete and offer different solutions. The interplay of national, local and personal interests between and among these actors can surely affect Congressmen and Senators’ decision-making processes in RH bill. The Kingdon model is also echoed in the Cobb and Elder model which stressed that for an issue to attain agenda status, it must command the support of at least some key decision-
makers such as political leaders, political parties and media, “for they are the ultimate guardians of the formal agenda”. Clearly the indecisiveness and the reluctant support of members of Congress to the RH bill can be probably rooted to the various interests that they have to weigh. Questions that continually hound Senators and Congressmen include among others: • • • • • • If I support/ do not support the RH bill, how would media paint me? If I support/ do not support the RH bill, how the Church look at me? If I support/ do not support the RH bill, how the President view me? If I support/ do not support the RH bill, will my political party like or dislike me? If I support/ do not support the RH bill, how would the civil society see me? Will my chances in the next election be diminished or improved?
It is this hemming and hawing – the interplay between the initiator and the trigger device plus the resultant event – that continues to pose a huge wedge and stumbling block in the passage of RH bill.
The middle ground: is this the high ground? Given the seeming stalemate among the actors which has seriously placed a huge cloud of doubt in the passage of the current RH bill, a compromise can be reached and this is where a political operator and/or advocacy specialist can come into play. A compromise method which accepts the mixture of both mandate and independent theories in representative democracy is being proposed. This means utilizing the survey results (public sentiment/mandate) and aggregating pro-RH bill sentiments from various political and nonpolitical actors in the policy arena can further advance the cause of RH bill in both Houses. The Pulse survey results plus other surveys and studies that can show groundswell of support from all over the country and various sectors/industries should be highlighted all the time in various forums. While public forums and academic circles help, the media should be used as the perfect conduit to drive/expand support to the RH bill. It can help if pro-RH Senators and Congressmen come out publicly, declaring their support to the RH bill which is one way of showing all actors (general public, elected and appointed officials, civil society) that congressional support is present, palpable and “countable”. To date, while NGOs and Pos assume they have the support of more than 100 congressmen and a number of Senators, only very few have publicly endorsed the bill. Publishing the names with their signatures in full page advertisements can surely create the buzz and a bandwagon effect to others who may felt “alone” in their struggle against the RH bill.
Numerous surveys and studies have already indicated the absence of Catholic votes and the pitiful support of the laity in CBCP’s pronouncements. The pro-RH bill should capitalize on these and continually air these studies/surveys/sentiments in public – in all forums. What the Church has is a perception of might and it does not have the numbers. The Pro-RH can simply demystify the Church is mighty myth and even fearful politicians will support the RH bill. If the Church resorts to “dirty tactics”, these should be exposed right away and ventilated in the press. The Church uses the press all the time, why can’t the pro-RH bill tap the press as well. The pro-RH bill needs a human face. It needs one spokesperson that the press can go to. The current campaign is not as organized as the CBCP. There should be a need to consolidate, regroup and plan specific messages to specific channels of communication. Numbers may/will come when perception is won.
While pro-RH bills groundwork the press, they also need to do more personal visits with pro-RH Senators and Congressmen assuring them public support. Using public support, watered down influence of the Church and expanded support from a number of civil society groups, they should be able to convince Senators and Congressmen to support the RH bill. The pro-RH bills can also make an effort to make the population/RH proposals an election issue (that is if the current Congress is unable to pass it). Demanding from current prospective candidates through public and media pressure their respective position on the RH bill is one way of letting the public know who is supportive or against RH.