Lagman's commitment to reproductive health

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas -

I have only admiration for legislators who spend time, energy and effort to swing a controversial reproductive health bill through the 14th Congress. One of the most visible of them is the principal author of House Bill 5043, Rep. Edcel C. Lagman of the 1st District of Albay.

Lagman has been preaching the gospel of reproductive health among his peers in Congress, teachers and students in universities, churches who dare let him do it, non-governmental and civic organizations, in Tobaco City in his province, to anyone who cares to listen. His passion is such that I suspect he talks about it even in his sleep.

To have more people know, and be convinced, about the necessity of having a reproductive health law, he gave up the chairmanship of the powerful Committee on Appropriations. “Walang hinto,” he told me.

 Essentially, the proposed law gives Filipino women and couples “the opportunity and option to meet their fertility goals, plan their families, space the birth of their children, avoid high-risk pregnancies, improve maternal health, reduce infant mortality, and have a more comfortable life and better well being,” says Lagman, a dark, swarthy, white-haired man in his middle 60s.

He tells his audiences that the Philippines has a very serious problem of a huge population growth rate (PGR) of 2.04 percent, the highest in Southeast Asia after the small countries of Brunei and Laos.

“Our population today is more than 90 million. It is projected to reach 94.3 million in 2010. It will balloon to 141 million in 2040 if we allow our population growth rate to remain high.”

 “The RH bill offers a solution, without compulsion, to reduce the huge population growth rate,” Lagman stresses.

 The bill, he continues, protects Filipinos’ right to reproductive right as a human right. This right includes the right to plan one’s family — a vital and indispensable right of all people but principally of women, who bear the brunt of pregnancy, childbirth and childcare.

The bill is not just family planning and contraceptive use — it is about health, rights and sustainable human development, he says.

Lagman has been in Congress four times — from 1987 to 1998, and is into his fifth term with the 14th Congress. For two terms — 1998 and 2004 — his daughter Kristel Galman Luistro, was the 1st District representative.

 Daughter Kristel ardently espoused the reproductive health issue, sponsoring House Bill 8110 or “The Integrated Population and Development Act of 1999” with co-authors Reps. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo and Nerio Acosta, and HB 4110, “An Act Establishing a Reproductive Health Act, Strengthening Its Implementation Structures, Appropriating Funds Therefore and for Other Purposes.”

 During the senior Lagman’s first two terms, i.e. before his daughter Kristel’s two terms, his advocacies were reducing what he called “staggering” debt service payments and an exploding population. But on his third term, in the 13th Congress, he took up where Kristel had left off, shifting to high gear with his relentless sponsoring of HB 3773 or the “Responsible Parenthood and Population Management Act of 2005,” and at the present 14th Congress, HB 5043, or the “Reproductive Health, Responsible Parenthood and Population Development Act of 2008.” The two measures have as co-sponsors Reps. Janet Garin, Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel and Narciso Santiago.

HB 5043, now into second reading, has 114 co-authors. It has reached the furthest stage in the congressional law-making process, the previous ones having been given the run-around, the committee hearing them being chaired by a critic of reproductive health and population management, and there being a deliberate lack of quorum, with legislators staying away so the bill would never reach 2nd reading at all.

Rep. Lagman is optimistic about the passage of a counterpart bill in the Senate. At this stage, he hopes there will be “an end to a long-winded interpellation” that is intended to derail debates on the measure. A recalcitrant oppositor, however, no longer can hog the floor endlessly, he says, as, “we have a rule on cloture. When a member has spoken for one hour, he can be stopped (from delivering further dilatory speeches).”

Some legislators tell him in private that they will vote for the bill. This is not because they fear they will lose the Catholic vote (Lagman says there is no Catholic vote,) but because “they fear the Catholic hierarchy.” 

He cites recent surveys showing majority of Catholics favoring a reproductive health law, requiring government to teach family planning to the youth, and the government distributing legal contraceptives like condoms, pills and IUDs. Religion, says Lagman, ranks only 9th out of 10 reasons why women do not use contraception. That a Catholic can still be a good Catholic and use family planning methods outside the only church-approved natural family planning methods has been expressed by a number of faculty and staff members of the Catholic institution Ateneo de Manila University, a position also held by University of the Philippines academicians. Lagman is himself a Catholic, and goes to mass when he can.

Lagman, a lawyer by training (UP, Class ’66), is a much-sought after speaker, and in nearly 100 percent of his engagements, he is hard put to demolish the notion that his bill is for abortion.

He says: “The measure repeatedly underscores that abortion is illegal, criminal and punishable, and is not part of the menu of legally permissible and medically safe family planning methods.” This exhortation, however, falls on oppositors’ dear ears.

Other misconceptions he tries to correct: The bill is not anti-life, but is Pro-quality life; the bill makes available to couples all possible family planning methods and not just natural family planning; contraceptives cannot be labeled as abortifacients; contraceptives do not kill, in fact the risk of dying from a car accident (1 in 5,900) is higher than that of using the pill (1 in 200,000); and worldwide, the risk of dying within one year from a pregnancy is 1 in 10,000. In the Philippines, the lifetime risk of dying from maternal causes is an alarming 1 in 100.

The bill, says Lagman, does not claim to be panacea to poverty. It does not offer a cure-all for poverty and underdevelopment in the country. “It simply recognizes the verifiable link between a huge population and poverty. Unbridled population growth stunts socio-economic development and aggravates poverty.”

“There is no reason for any of us to be afraid of the RH bill,” says Lagman. “But there are 4,500 reasons to support it — the 4,500 Filipino mothers who die every year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; 8,000 reasons to fight for reproductive rights — the 8,000 babies who annually do not survive their first month of life, and another 2.6 million reasons — the 2.6 million poor Filipinas who want to plan their families but are unable to do so because they lack information on and access to family planning services.”

Lagman’s evangelistic work continues up to possibly May, when the bill’s fate is voted by his co-legislators.

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My e-mail:dominimt@[email protected]

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