Between Rock and Whirpool

by Juan L. Mercado

Does the re-ignited  Reproductive Health bill controversy  shove us between  “the hard rock of Scylla and  the whirlpool of Charybdis”  of  Greek mythology?

On one side are pugnacious RH  advocates. They scoff at even nuanced support for the bill.  Ricardo J. Romulo, who agrees with the bill’s thrust, cautions against Sections 17 and 21. Proposed criminal sanctions  may  impinge on religious freedoms.

A  dialog between the President and Catholic bishops “erodes essence of the state”. GendeRights Executive Director Clara Rita Padilla  asserts.  Isn’t  that  a recycle of  the old  criticism lobbed against the Master?: “You talk to sinners.”

Those who’d call  down  fire and brimstone are on the other side. Bishop Nereo Odchimar denies he threatened to excommunicate  President Benigno Aquino for supporting  broader  family planning choices. “Man does not live by words alone, although he sometimes must  swallow them,” cracked the late Adlai Stevenson.

The regional Sun Star daily reminded the shepherds : “Excommunication is to be used with sobriety and circumspection”, the Trent Council of  1563  cautioned:  “If  wielded  rashly, it is more despised than feared, and works more evil than good.”

Yet, the common  ground of advocates and critics is far broader than their fiery  rhetoric suggests.

Take the headcount. Congress funded the last national census seven years late. Voting age cohorts are bloated. In Maguindanao and other warlord dominated places. Population surged in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. This contrasted markedly with a slow decline elsewhere.

How many of us were here when P-Noy took his oath as president?  Depends on who you ask. The National Statistical Office swears  there were  94.01 million Filipinos then. Really? . U.S. offices estimate  97.9 million. UN lobs  a question in reply. “Which projections do you  use?  Low,  medium or high?”

The NSO estimate, in any case,  equals 13 Hong Kongs,  population wise.That’s five times the  pre-World War II headcount.  Nor is that a neat antiseptic figure. Out of every 100 Filipinos, 44 scrape by on a hundred pesos a day.

The country whittled down poverty incidence from a high of  30 percent in the early 1990s. But the global food and fuel crises, plus population surges,  “pushed even more people into penury”. We ignore Aristotle’s caution at our peril: “Poverty is the parent of rebellion and crime.”

The momentum of  population growth  ignores  presidents, bishops and congressmen. It persists long after brakes are pulled.  Computers are still crunching the 2010 census returns, amidst murmurs of undercounts.   But all brace  for a larger population.

No one disputes  the  “youth bulge”. Majority of Filipinos are young.  With hormones in overdrive, many start families early,  despite marriage codes that jackup minimum age.  They tarry in reproductive years longer.

All camps here  recoil from abortion. Human life is precious.  Lacking  access to information and  family planning  services nearly 473,000  Filipinas opted for underground abortions” notes the United Nations Children’s Fund.  Illegal  clinics and hilots ply a lucrative   ub-rosa trade.

Do abortions now exceed half a million? There is no reliable tally  in this murky  underworld.. But all agree women must

be helped to become informed and speak for themselves. Continued neglect would “abet the terrible reality of abortion as the only viable choice open to poor Filipino women.”

Couples must  make family size decisions  responsibly and freely,  Pope John Paul II stressed. The Catholic Bishops’ 2nd Plenary Council, taught:  Parents should “beget only those children they can raise up in a truly human and Christian way. The decision on number of children rests solely with parents.”

“It is legitimate for government to orient the demography of population,” the Catholic catechism says.  It can do so by information, but not by coercion or “means contrary to moral law.”

Frontier  Mindanao dioceses – Ipil, Cagayan de Oro, Isabela (Basilan) Digos and Cotabato — support natural  family planning programs. “We must  give an effective answer to the stark realities of unwanted pregnancies, abortions and use of contraceptives.” Cagayan de Oro’s Archbishop  Antonio Ledesma says.

Could  a  compromise  bill could  prevent  Filipinos  being trapped “between the rock and the whirlpool”?   Yes, say business groups that met last November at the Asian Institute of Management.

The conference excluded legislators for or against the RH bill  Instead,  Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) Makati Business Club (MBC) and the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development (BBC) dialoged with stakeholders: from NGOs, academics to church and business.

A wide range of views were heard: from population programs being an “imperialist plot” to government being able to accomplish  the demographic objectives, even without the bill. The final consensus : the problem’s urgency demanded  business sector  help to find a  solution.

The President and the Catholic bishops are to dialog. That should help the country step back from a  “hard rock of Scylla or whirlpool of Charybdis”  choices. All agree  the cascade of ill-nourished babies from wizened mothers into sentences of life-long poverty is a prescription for disaster.

Realism must temper hopes. Whatever decisions the President or the bishops reach, the  sheer momentum of  human fecundity  guarantees the addition of a 12-million Metro Manila to the country’s headcount by  2016.  That’s also when PNoy steps down from Malacanang.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

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