A lot have chimed in on what the debates have been missing: sobriety, moderation, charity, humility, peace, a basket of cookies, a litter of kittens, etc. But I’d like to point out one thing which I personally find a little lacking: leadership.
I am looking at you, President Noynoy Aquino.
For the debates have become very contentious now. Public opinion is being created and assaulted on so many fronts. You have the pro, the anti, the pro-pro, the anti-anti, the anti-pro, the pro-anti, and those sitting on the fence, pro-sitting on the fence, anti-sitting on the fence, etc etc. I can go on and on, and it wouldn’t change the fact that all this name calling is both preposterous, pretentious, and infantile.
I find that because of these debates, we’re losing track of what the issue is all about. It’s about people. And yet your silence, Mr. President, has allowed everyone to make this about religion, civilization, sex, promiscuity, the Jesuits, the Opus Dei, the Dominicans, freethinkers, unfreethinkers, atheists, secularists, quasi-intellectuals, journalists, bloggers, paid-bloggers, the Americans, the Chinese, the Singaporeans, the Thais, the Africans, the Vatican, and what have you. Everyone is an expert on reproductive health all of a sudden. Everyone is intelligent now, complete with their repertoire of irrefutable HTML links, dated references, biased research, unscientific polls, divinely inspired texts, and an artful confluence of words.
What am I expecting, you ask?
That every now and then — for example before Congress began their circus — you speak on air and remind everyone what the proposed bill hopes to do. You acknowledge the poisonous tenor of the debate, remind us that it isn’t helpful, and that while we can’t agree on everything, we can agree on something. Perhaps the biggest falsehood going around which I can firmly blame you for allowing to fester is that the bill has no designs on economic development and that overpopulation isn’t a problem. That the debate has come to a point where opponents can deny this fundamental reality is incredibly alarming and a stark reminder of how surreal this is all turning out to be.
We all know you support the bill, but I also understand why you want — need — to pussyfoot around it. It’s tough politically. But Mr. President, please grow a pair. You speak strongly of following the straight path. Let it not be a narrow one as well. And while the tuwid na daan symbolizes your aspirations for integrity and honesty in government, don’t misconstrue this as you being infallible or untouchable. Take a gamble. Stand up for what you believe in. Play to win, but lose honorably.
If only I could write your speech, Mr. President.
I’d open it with the words of Matthew 25:40. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Talk about how the Philippines is a developing nation, and that while we’ve seen economic growth in recent years, we’ve also seen growing inequity. The gap between rich and poor is widening, but we shouldn’t take this as mere fact but as a challenge. Hence, reaching out to the poorest among us and elevating their lot in life is your priority as President, and that ‘as a nation blessed by God’ we are charged with looking after each other. That notion is inherent in the belief of our country’s Catholic majority. That too is inherent in all Christian faiths, in Islam, and in the universal human aspiration for a better life. Then discuss the malaise of poverty, its many causes and challenges, and explain how reproductive health is a part of the problem.
Talk about what the government has done so far for women and children, acknowledge that existing programs there haven’t been enough, and that the government can take an extra step to provide better services and care to young mothers, expectant ones, and those who have become a mother a dozen times over. Outline the key principles of a reasonable RH bill, and talk about the role you intend for government to play.
Then emphasize that the government shall forever respect religious freedom, making it clear that no one is forced to avail of methods that they may deem unconscionable and that health workers outside the state system will not be penalized for not providing unconscionable contraceptive methods. Moreover, those who go into the government health service must know what they’re getting into and should willfully choose to do so. It’s like joining the military; they’ll have a professional and civic duty to fulfill their patient’s needs regardless of their own ethical stances. Nonetheless, emphasize that abortion will forever be taboo, and that any bill that will begin our country down the slippery slope to legalizing abortion will be automatically vetoed.
Ultimately you’ll have to do politics, and talk about how the goals of the RH Bill are modest and do not allow for the creation of a culture of promiscuity, sex, and death. This is so because culture is still the domain of people and cannot be simply legislated by law. Call on the Church and other religious groups to continue on their good work of educating couples to be responsible and reassure them that whether one avails of artificial contraception or not will always be the domain of conscience and hence beyond the control of the state. But remind them that you are the President of the Philippines. And that for some people there are methods which are conscionable and appropriate, and hence the state should provide what it can where it can. Conclude that the RH Bill will never encroach on religious belief and practice for it does not undermine or replace conscience, the bedrock of Catholic spirituality. And if ever they do collide, there will always be a case for government reviewing the legislation they make and for the Church reviewing the formation they provide.
In the end, when the dust settles, remind all of us that we are at a decisive moment in history and that how we conduct ourselves now will determine what it is we get to do ‘for the least of our brothers’. Admit that the RH Bill, in its current form, isn’t perfect. No bill ever is. But that’s why we debate. And if ever the debates turn out that such a bill isn’t necessary, then so be it. You’ll accept it. But what you won’t accept is that we do nothing for those who remain poor, uneducated, and powerless. What you won’t accept is that there continues to be children born into families that can’t provide, homes that cannot house dreams, and communities that can’t raise good families. Failing to act now is simply unacceptable to you, Mr. President. And while you will always welcome other proposals and alternatives, there is no doubt that Congress can do something now. Hence our failure to act won’t just be a failing in the eyes of man; it will be a tragedy in the eyes of God.
End by affirming that while the constitution speaks about a separation of Church and State, the best moments in our history have come when everyone works together. It was, after all, with the Church and the Filipino people behind her that your mother became President, deposed a dictator, and restored our liberty. However, make it clear that winning democracy is one thing and working at it is another. We may find ourselves on divergent paths and opposing sides, but in being honorable and honest to each other we enhance our democracy and become the people worthy of the freedom we’ve won. “The Filipino is worth dying for.” Your father once said. So let’s live well. Let us be the people our heroes once fought for.
I didn’t vote for you, Mr. President. But I don’t want to use that as a source of comfort in case you fail. I want you to succeed. And if you need any help, you know where to reach me.