RH Bill: Beyond Economics

Posted on Posted in 2012-2013

Before the great brouhaha over the FOI Bill and the Anti-Cybercrime Law, the Reproductive Health Bill was the talk of the town. Indeed, months ago, the debate over the proposed law was so intense that the public seemed deeply polarized between the pro-life and pro-choice camps.

After the tension has subsided, and the public has discovered new issues to tackle with, OIKONOMOS finds it imperative to look back and reflect about the RH Bill – with its divergence of perspectives, the frameworks and narratives that has influenced each side, and the economic theories that are embedded in the arguments – with the goal of improving the way discourse is done in the country. 

In this article, the author suggests an approach on confronting national issues from the standpoint of a believer to Catholic faith – that when economic planners are tasked to make policy decisions, moral and ethical aspects must also be considered.

By Peter Lee U, PhD*

I am honored to be invited by the Ateneo Economics Association to write an opinion on an economic related policy for your online publication, Oikonomos. I wish to stress that my opinion is my own and I am not speaking for the Philippine Economic Society nor for my own university.

The population issue has been much debated for decades in economics. I have not done extensive research on this area and my limited understanding is that in the past, the question was if a large population served as a drag on economic growth. Lately, the main concern seems to be whether the poor have larger families and if this makes it more difficult for them to properly educate all the children, thus posing an obstacle for them to rise out of poverty.

I will not replay the economic arguments here on either side due to space limitations. One can easily read economists arguing both sides, especially in the popular media today, because of the RH Bill debate. Moreover, not being my field of specialization, I doubt I can contribute anything new from the economic standpoint.

I wish instead to point out how the issue illustrates the importance of taking into consideration the moral and ethical aspects in making policy prescriptions. As economists, we should not have an overly imperialistic view of the world, looking at the world’s problems exclusively from an economics lens. We must have a proper concept and understanding of the nature of man and society; especially since economics ultimately seeks to allocate resources to improve mankind’s welfare. We will especially need to turn to the fields of philosophy and social ethics. For the latter, the Catholic Church’s social magisterium provides a rich resource as well. In turn, this implies that as economics students, you must not neglect your other humanistic subjects.

The traditional concept of marriage and family (one man one woman until death do they part) may be labeled old fashioned by many today, but it is very hard to argue that it is not the ideal institution in which to raise children. Who among us does not aspire to form such a family (unless he/she receives a vocation to apostolic celibacy)? Thus it can never become obsolete. Essential to the family is the love between husband and wife, which finds a natural expression in the marital act that is open to new life. Reflecting objectively on the marital act, it is difficult to reconcile truly loving the other spouse while frustrating the possibility of bearing fruit; new life that equally carries the genetic imprint of the spouses. In the language of Humanae Vitae, the procreative and the unitive aspects cannot be separated. Limiting use of the marital act to this context may sometimes be difficult, but mere inconvenience would not justify contravention. This may not be the most eloquent exposition the principle, but it is my understanding of why artificial contraception is a contravention of the natural law, and therefore immoral.

While the Catholic Church has perhaps been the strongest voice reminding us of the immorality of artificial contraception, it is a tenet that applies to people of all creeds. As the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) also reminds us, it is a precept grounded on natural law, which is not exclusive to the Catholic church.

Much of the RH Bill seems to concern promoting also the use of ‘modern’ contraceptive methods of family planning. My reading of the term ‘modern contraceptive methods’ in the bill is that it includes (if not refers specifically to) artificial contraception. But if artificial contraception is immoral, it should not be promoted.

Thus, even if it can be shown conclusively that poor families’ chances of rising out of poverty are improved with smaller family size, we cannot adopt immoral means to achieve good ends. As a student, we would not cheat on an exam to get a higher grade even if we were certain we won’t be caught. Cheating is immoral.

In my view, the critical issue then is not a matter of economics but a moral one. Moral good trumps material good. If artificial contraception is immoral, then it is not an option for reducing poverty. It may be more difficult to come up with alternative moral solutions to help families rise out of poverty, but it is not an excuse not to try; and it certainly does not justify taking immoral ways out. To begin to appreciate this, it is necessary that we economists do not restrict ourselves only to economics.

*Peter Lee U is currently the President of the Philippine Economics Society and the Dean of the University of Asia and the Pacific School of Economics.

Beyond the Classroom provides avenues for thinkers and teachers to go beyond the classroom setting in imparting economic wisdom.

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