Agree to Agree on RH

By admin On October 5, 2010 Under Governance, Inner Thoughts, Politics and Politicians, Reproductive Health Bill

When people take sides in an argument, especially one that involves deep-seated beliefs and emotions, it is difficult to come to an understanding. Often, what begins as an exchange of ideas degenerate into antagonism and eventually a breakdown of talks.

I’ve seen it happen many times before, especially in the line of work I was in. It is a natural consequence that in legislation, people will take sides for or against a particular proposal. Ideally, the differences in opinion are the basis of fine tuning a proposal into what is supposed to be a product of consensus. You filter out the disagreeable ideas and consolidate the acceptable ones. But sometimes, there simply is no way to go through, around, over and even under the ideological or philosophical obstacles. You simply run into brick walls of myopic views or stubborn attitudes.

Such is the case with the Reproductive Health Bill, which has been pending in the Legislative Department for the past 14 years. It was first filed in the 10th Congress and is once again in the list of bills for consideration under the current 15th Congress.

Some ask if it has been pending for such a long time, why is it still re-filed every new Congress? The answer is simple. The bill was never rejected by a vote in either the House of Representatives or the Senate. Over the years, the issue remained the topic of intense discussion inside and outside of the Congress, and with the Catholic Church’s strong position on the matter which is usually turned into a political issue, politicians tend to back down from the head-on collision as elections draw near. Most politicians wouldn’t risk a confrontation with the Catholic Church with elections held every three years.

But after all this time, the bill has transformed from what I would call its crude form in the early years to what I refer to as its refined form as presently filed. Perhaps it was to the bill’s best interest to have undergone such a long process of discussion and debate in order to make the bill more balanced in sensitivities and complete in its substance.

Every new Congress seems to bring about a new milestone for the bill, inching closer to the possibility of it being approved as a law. I first joined the House of Representatives in the 12th Congress and in the three terms that I stayed there, I’ve been witness to the bill getting past stages that bring it closer to final passage into being a Republic Act.

If before it never even reached a vote in the committee level, we’ve now come to a situation where the Speaker of the House vows a plenary vote and the President making statements that open the door for the adoption of national policy on Reproductive Health.

Times have indeed changed. Even the public’s reaction seems to have transformed. There were times when the public was apathetic at best or vocally against at worst, now we see vocal public support even for the brazen act of protest by a tour guide inside a church.

Looking back over the years that the RH Bill has been in public discussion, one thing that I have observed is that the both sides of the argument consistently took strong positions against each other. That, perhaps, contributed to the prolonged and sometimes heated debate on whether or not the bill should become a law. Perhaps some would say, “That’s the way how debates go”. In a sense, that’s right.

But legislation has never been described as a debating contest. It has always been said that legislation is the art of compromise. That is, the efforts are not simply to win in the debate, but to come to an agreement or consensus on something which will be beneficial to most, if not all.

Debating contests are measured by points and decided upon by a panel of judges. But in legislation, the participants are actually all in the same side, because the point of it all is to pass a law which is beneficial to the citizens and to the nation. Following that frame of mind, it is really not going to be productive if the whole discussion is undertaken from the point of view of protagonists and antagonists. In the end, it will be the people who lose in a non-productive exercise.

Having been identified with those who support the passage of a policy on Reproductive Health, I have engaged many times those who have very strong positions against it. I have never dodged an opportunity to engage them and in each and every time, my immediate objective was not to dissuade them from their beliefs or convince them to change their minds.

For me, the first objective always was to identify what we could agree on and work our way from there. The next objective was to get them to understand my position in the same degree that I show them that I understand theirs. Understanding the another party’s position is not equal to submitting or surrendering. It is merely an acknowledgment of the other side’s sincerity of motives in pushing for a particular idea. But understanding begins with agreeing.

And when I say it begins with agreeing, I do not mean the cliché which says that you can “agree to disagree”. What I mean is actually beginning with points that both parties agree with. That way, commonality is immediately established and the realization that both are actually on the same side becomes attainable.

In one of my engagements with groups strongly opposing RH, I was able to get them to drop the idea of killing the bill and accept to the need to establish a policy by using the “agree to agree first” strategy.

When I met with them, I let them speak first in order for me to get an idea of their position. After saying what they believed were “evils” of the bill, they called on me to help “kill the bill”.

My first response was to ask them if they had read the bill. They answered yes. I asked if in all the provisions of the proposed bill, did they not see any single proposal that they found good? They answered “none”.

I then asked them if they agreed that every city and municipality should employ an adequate number of midwives to provide services for those in need, especially the underprivileged. They replied in a chorus of “Yes!”. Some even gave more emphatic opinions on their affirmative reply.

It was in that instance that I pointed out to them that the bill had a provision to make it a policy for all cities and municipalities to employ an adequate number of midwives. I can only speculate the reason they missed out on that provision of the bill which they said they read, but I was able to get from their own response an agreement to at least one provision of the bill. It was in that light that I appealed to them that killing the bill in its entirety will also kill provisions which they themselves agree with.

I followed through with my argument for the necessity of a policy to be set in place through a law, explaining to them that if it is not institutionalized, people will continue to be denied service which they need and deserve.

By putting on the forefront points that we could agree on, we avoided a highly charged clash of ideas and instead arrived at a point of discussion where we could work towards a consensus. We did not fall into the trap of a pissing contest, but instead had a realization that we were also operating under the same principle—a better life for our countrymen.

After getting them to agree that a policy is needed, I enticed them to submit their own proposals for consideration and possible inclusion in the bill. They happily accepted the offer of collaboration and effectively abandoned the “kill the bill” battlecry.

They came to our engagement ready for battle, but they left with a peace accord that did not leave anyone surrendering their pride and dignity. Of course, getting through the more controversial provisions will definitely be more bloody.

But sometimes, that’s how you win wars…one battle at a time.

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