Dialogue and Reproductive Health

Dialogue and Reproductive Health

6 January 2011

The View From Taft, BusinessWorld

I think that 2011 may be the year that consensus will be achieved on the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill (or bills, since there are half a dozen versions). For more than a decade since the original bill was introduced by Cong. Edcel Lagman and his colleagues, it’s been difficult to achieve reasonable discussions among opposing parties around the bill. It touches on complex and sensitive matters for Filipinos, including sexual behavior, procreation, the education of the young and economic development.

In gatherings I’ve been in, most individuals who speak on the issue have strong opinions about it. Those who keep their opinions to themselves probably do so to keep the peace. In other settings, the contending parties are not only convinced of their own correctness but more so the wrongness, even idiocy or, in the extreme, downright malevolence of the other side.

For example, some advocates who normally resort to reasonable persuasion have given in to passion to make a point. Last September, RH Bill advocate Carlos Celdran made a display of his displeasure over the Catholic Church’s stand on the bill by disrupting a mass ceremony, dramatically employing the Padre Damaso symbolism to protest “the abuses of friars to get what they want” on this issue. Later in November, Eric Manalang of Pro-Life Philippines demanded that RH Bill supporters leave the Manila Cathedral during the group’s affair by exclaiming, “Satan, get away from us!”

Such eruptions of emotion are understandable since these advocates attach much importance to what’s at stake. But personal attacks do not clarify issues. More tragically, demonizing (whether literally or figuratively) the contending side only serves to polarize the very people that need to be engaged in moving forward on these issues. This is unfortunate. A bill this complex needs as many perspectives as possible for a full and productive appreciation. This is where dialogue becomes crucial.

A breakthrough of sorts was achieved last December when a consultative meeting between the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) yielded the agreement that the beginning of life occurs during fertilization, and not at implantation as claimed by some sectors. Agreeing on such a basic point can surely move a healthy dialogue forward.

There are other fundamental issues which urgently need clarity, such as the definition of reproductive health itself on which the whole bill is based. The Lagman version of the bill bases its definition on that of the World Health Organization (WHO): “the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely referring to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes.” This is a desirable goal for a public policy which everyone can support, but the definition continues: “This implies that people are able to enjoy responsible and safe sex….” This part of the definition begs the question of what “responsible sex” means. Does it refer to sex within marriage? Or does it merely refer to sex which does not lead to unwanted pregnancy or the spread of disease? Can the latter sense really represent complete well-being? Shouldn’t the definition provide a clearer and more socially appropriate context for the enjoyment of sex? I think so, if the bill is to have a solid and rational foundation for promoting social well-being.

The bill is complex and will need focused discussions on its different components. As the dialogues continue, it may help to use a couple of guidelines for principled negotiations proposed by Roger Fisher and Willim Ury in their classic book, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

Separate the people from the problem. As shown by the Celdran and Manalang incidents, the combination of high stakes and high emotions can lead to very disagreeable exchanges and counter-productive animosity among parties. Such a situation can easily become an “Us” vs. “Them” scenario. Fisher and Ury suggest, instead, looking at a common problem together and creatively finding ways to address this problem. For example, aren’t the advocates on both sides interested in moving the country forward? Then, everyone should give as much respect, goodwill and benefit of the doubt as they expect when debating the issues.

Focus on interests, not positions. Fisher and Ury suggest that interests or ends should be prioritized over positions or means. Contending parties often take opposed positions but really have compatible interests. In the case of the bill, it’s likely that everyone is interested in human and socio-economic development. If the contending parties discuss in earnest how the bill can objectively help achieve this, a consensus cannot be too far off.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is the Aquino associate professor for business management at De La Salle University. He may be emailed at teehankeeb@yahoo.com. The views expressed above are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the official position of De La Salle University and its faculty and administrators.