Sound policy arguments

Sound policy arguments

I’m happy that more people are expressing arguments for or against the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill. The public interest will surely be served if more can be informed about the different aspects of this controversial bill. I cannot remember a piece of legislation that manages to involve so many contentious issues into one bill: religious beliefs, population management, contraception, sex education, health, human rights, the use of public funds, etc. These are sensitive issues individually but, put together, they bring about a “perfect storm” of a bill in terms of triggering emotional debate.

As a result, the exchange of arguments around the bill can often generate more heat than light. I’ve watched televised debates, read opinion pieces and attended a forum on the bill. It is extremely difficult to evaluate the opposing arguments side by side. It’s like having one side broadcasting on AM while the other one does it on FM – arguments from the two sides don’t even connect with each other.

Given this confusing situation, it’s not easy to check which arguments are sounder. Part of the problem is that the advocates are not always careful to state their arguments in a form that can be analyzed critically. It would help if advocates make all the pieces of their arguments crystal clear. A sound policy argument should accomplish at least four things to benefit a listener: (1) define and use key concepts clearly and unequivocally, (2) present an acceptable social principle as a premise, (3) support the principle with verifiable facts as a second premise, and (4) establish that the bill logically follows from the premised principle and facts. If any one of these is not done, the policy argument cannot be checked for soundness and may merely confuse. If they are all present, then the listener must agree with the premises as well as the logic for him to find the policy argument sound.

Let me cite examples. An anti-RH group cited several studies linking the widespread use of contraceptives to the increase in premarital sex. The findings of such studies are verifiable facts so this provides an important piece of the argument. But what would be wrong if premarital sex increases? What is the social principle that makes this unacceptable? This was missing in the argument. The group should make their principle premise clear and not merely implied.

A pro-RH group premised its argument on the right of human beings to total development and the way poverty deprives people of their needed quality of life. But what facts support the claim that making contraceptives widely available will lead to improved total development among people? This was missing in the argument. In fact, the concept of total development on which the argument rests was not defined to begin with.

A pro-RH business leader claimed that the government does not have enough resources to take care of the poor. Does it logically follow then that the bill will enable government to have the resources it needs? This was not made clear.

If missing pieces in arguments aren’t confusing enough, there are those who resort to personal attacks as part of their arguments. Needless to say, these are generally irrelevant and do not make a policy argument sounder. Such statements produce unnecessary negative emotions which can further cloud the reasoned discussion of the bill. Worse, they undermine the building of mutual respect and trust which are so important for such discussions.

I’m still piecing together the arguments from advocates for both sides even as I do have a stand on the bill. I believe that, more important than the fate of the bill itself, the quality of our reasoning together as a people will determine how we will progress as a nation.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is the Cuisia associate professor in business ethics and chairman of the Management and Organization Department of De La Salle University. He may be emailed at