MANILA, Philippines - A relentless Catholic Church campaign to derail a birth control law began its final phase at the Supreme Court (SC) yesterday, with the verdict to have monumental impact for millions of poor Filipinos.
It is the last legal recourse for the Church, which had for more than a decade led resistance efforts to birth control legislation in the mainly Catholic Southeast Asian nation by lobbying and intimidating politicians.
Arguments during yesterday’s hearing centered on the supposed beginning of conception.
Counsels for the 15 petitioners told the Supreme Court justices that Republic Act 10354 or the Reproductive Health (RH) Law violates the fundamental right to life protected under the Constitution.
At Malacañang, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said they were confident government lawyers would be able to convince the magistrates to let the RH law take its course. She also shrugged off concerns that the new debates over the RH law might sour relations between the administration and the new leadership of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP). Bishop Socrates Villegas recently assumed the CBCP presidency.
Lawyer Ma. Concepcion Noche, one of the petitioners representing the Alliance for the Family Foundation Philippines, argued that the law goes against the duty of the government to equally protect the life of the mother and that of the unborn from conception. She said conception begins with “fertilization” or the meeting of the egg and sperm resulting in a fertilized ovum or zygote.
She claimed proponents of the RH law in Congress “re-engineered the meaning of conception by making it synonymous with implantation,” referring to the very early stage of pregnancy during which the embryo adheres to the wall of the uterus.
But during interpellation, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said even the medical profession has not conclusively resolved the issue.
“You’re asking us to decide on medical issue, on when conception happens? If it’s not settled in the medical profession, how can you expect us to settle this?” he asked.
Associate Justice Marvic Leonen – an appointee of President Aquino – backed Carpio’s point.
“We are not a council of faith nor medical doctors, we are only SC justices. What we can only use as tools are the law. You are giving us the awesome responsibility to determine the beginning of life,” he told the petitioner.
But Noche insisted: “It is settled in the health professionals that life starts in fertilization.”
Citing scientific studies, she told the magistrates that fertilized ovum is “alive with 46 chromosomes.”
Associate Justice Roberto Abad agreed with petitioner on this point, saying the high court can decide on the issue based on “understanding of when conception or life begins.”
“There’s no need for medical expertise,” he stressed.
Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-De Castro supported this belief and even challenged the definition of “conception” used by authors of the law.
“Life cannot begin from implantation because even if you implant something that is not living, it will not grow and develop,” she pointed out.
Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo agreed with the petitioner’s definition of conception: “Upon meeting of egg and sperm, I think there is already life there. I can see that.”
But for Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta, there might be a need to “ask the people who ratified the Constitution how they understood the term ‘conception’.”- With Mayen Jaymalin, Aurea Calica