CASE DIGEST: Imbong v Ochoa, et al. (G.R. Nos. 204819, 204934, 204957, 205003, 205138, 204988, 205043, 205478, 205491, 205720, 206355, 207111, 207172, 207563)

Click here for the full text of the Decision.

Read the RH Law (RA 10354) here.

Read the IRR of the RH Law here.

Read enforcement mechanisms of the RH Law with the unconstitutional provisions stricken out here.

* SUBSTANTIVE ISSUES:

A. On the constitutionality of RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law

1. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the right to life:

NO. Majority of the Members of the Court believe that the question of when life begins is a scientific and medical issue that should not be decided, at this stage, without proper hearing and evidence. However, they agreed that individual Members could express their own views on this matter.

Ponente’s view (Justice Mendoza): Article II, Section 12 of the Constitution states: “The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic autonomous social institution. It shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from conception.

In its plain and ordinary meaning (a canon in statutory construction), the traditional meaning of “conception” according to reputable dictionaries cited by the ponente is that life begins at fertilization. Medical sources also support the view that conception begins at fertilization.

The framers of the Constitution also intended for (a) “conception” to refer to the moment of “fertilization” and (b) the protection of the unborn child upon fertilization. In addition, they did not intend to ban all contraceptives for being unconstitutional; only those that kill or destroy the fertilized ovum would be prohibited. Contraceptives that actually prevent the union of the male sperm and female ovum, and those that similarly take action before fertilization should be deemed non-abortive, and thus constitutionally permissible.

The intent of the framers of the Constitution for protecting the life of the unborn child was to prevent the Legislature from passing a measure prevent abortion. The Court cannot interpret this otherwise. The RH Law is in line with this intent and actually prohibits abortion. By using the word “or” in defining abortifacient (Section 4(a)), the RH Law prohibits not only drugs or devices that prevent implantation but also those that induce abortion and induce the destruction of a fetus inside the mother’s womb. The RH Law recognizes that the fertilized ovum already has life and that the State has a bounded duty to protect it.

However, the authors of the IRR gravely abused their office when they redefined the meaning of abortifacient by using the term “primarily”. Recognizing as abortifacients only those that “primarily induce abortion or the destruction of a fetus inside the mother’s womb or the prevention of the fertilized ovum to reach and be implanted in the mother’s womb” (Sec. 3.01(a) of the IRR) would pave the way for the approval of contraceptives that may harm or destroy the life of the unborn from conception/fertilization. This violates Section 12, Article II of the Constitution. For the same reason, the definition of contraceptives under the IRR (Sec 3.01(j)), which also uses the term “primarily”, must be struck down.

2. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the right to health

NO. Petitioners claim that the right to health is violated by the RH Law because it requires the inclusion of hormonal contraceptives, intrauterine devices, injectables and other safe, legal, non-abortifacient and effective family planning products and supplies in the National Drug Formulary and in the regular purchase of essential medicines and supplies of all national hospitals (Section 9 of the RH Law). They cite risks of getting diseases gained by using e.g. oral contraceptive pills.

Some petitioners do not question contraception and contraceptives per se. Rather, they pray that the status quo under RA 4729 and 5921 be maintained. These laws prohibit the sale and distribution of contraceptives without the prescription of a duly-licensed physician.

The RH Law does not intend to do away with RA 4729 (1966). With RA 4729 in place, the Court believes adequate safeguards exist to ensure that only safe contraceptives are made available to the public. In fulfilling its mandate under Sec. 10 of the RH Law, the DOH must keep in mind the provisions of RA 4729: the contraceptives it will procure shall be from a duly licensed drug store or pharmaceutical company and that the actual distribution of these contraceptive drugs and devices will be done following a prescription of a qualified medical practitioner.

Meanwhile, the requirement of Section 9 of the RH Law is to be considered “mandatory” only after these devices and materials have been tested, evaluated and approved by the FDA. Congress cannot determine that contraceptives are “safe, legal, non-abortificient and effective”.

3. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the freedom of religion and right to free speech 

The Court cannot determine whether or not the use of contraceptives or participation in support of modern RH measures (a) is moral from a religious standpoint; or, (b) right or wrong according to one’s dogma or belief. However, the Court has the authority to determine whether or not the RH Law contravenes the Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

a.) WON the RH Law violates the guarantee of religious freedom since it mandates the State-sponsored procurement of contraceptives, which contravene the religious beliefs of e.g. the petitioners

NO. The State may pursue its legitimate secular objectives without being dictated upon the policies of any one religion. To allow religious sects to dictate policy or restrict other groups would violate Article III, Section 5 of the Constitution or the Establishment Clause. This would cause the State to adhere to a particular religion, and thus, establishes a state religion. Thus, the State can enhance its population control program through the RH Law even if the promotion of contraceptive use is contrary to the religious beliefs of e.g. the petitioners.

b.) WON the RH Law violates the guarantee of religious freedom by compelling medical health practitioners, hospitals, and health care providers, under pain of penalty, to refer patients to other institutions despite their conscientious objections

YES. Sections 7, 23, and 24 of the RH Law obliges a hospital or medical practitioner to immediately refer a person seeking health care and services under the law to another accessible healthcare provider despite their conscientious objections based on religious or ethical beliefs. These provisions violate the religious belief and conviction of a conscientious objector. They are contrary to Section 29(2), Article VI of the Constitution or the Free Exercise Clause, whose basis is the respect for the inviolability of the human conscience.

The provisions in the RH Law compelling non-maternity specialty hospitals and hospitals owned and operated by a religious group and health care service providers to refer patients to other providers and penalizing them if they fail to do so (Sections 7 and 23(a)(3)) as well as compelling them to disseminate information and perform RH procedures under pain of penalty (Sections 23(a)(1) and (a)(2) in relation to Section 24) also violate (and inhibit) the freedom of religion. While penalties may be imposed by law to ensure compliance to it, a constitutionally-protected right must prevail over the effective implementation of the law. 

Excluding public health officers from being conscientious objectors (under Sec. 5.24 of the IRR) also violates the equal protection clause. There is no perceptible distinction between public health officers and their private counterparts. In addition, the freedom to believe is intrinsic in every individual and the protection of this freedom remains even if he/she is employed in the government.

Using the compelling state interest test, there is no compelling state interest to limit the free exercise of conscientious objectors. There is no immediate danger to the life or health of an individual in the perceived scenario of the above-quoted provisions. In addition, the limits do not pertain to life-threatening cases.

The respondents also failed to show that these provisions are least intrusive means to achieve a legitimate state objective. The Legislature has already taken other secular steps to ensure that the right to health is protected, such as RA 4729, RA 6365 (The Population Act of the Philippines) and RA 9710 (The Magna Carta of Women).

c.) WON the RH Law violates the guarantee of religious freedom by requiring would-be spouses, as a condition for the issuance of a marriage license, to attend a seminar on parenthood, family planning, breastfeeding and infant nutrition

NO. Section 15 of the RH Law, which requires would-be spouses to attend a seminar on parenthood, family planning, breastfeeding and infant nutrition as a condition for the issuance of a marriage license, is a reasonable exercise of police power by the government. The law does not even mandate the type of family planning methods to be included in the seminar. Those who attend the seminar are free to accept or reject information they receive and they retain the freedom to decide on matters of family life without the intervention of the State.

4. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the right to privacy (marital privacy and autonomy)

YES. Section 23(a)(2)(i) of the RH Law, which permits RH procedures even with only the consent of the spouse undergoing the provision (disregarding spousal content), intrudes into martial privacy and autonomy and goes against the constitutional safeguards for the family as the basic social institution. Particularly, Section 3, Article XV of the Constitution mandates the State to defend: (a) the right of spouses to found a family in accordance with their religious convictions and the demands of responsible parenthood and (b) the right of families or family associations to participate in the planning and implementation of policies and programs that affect them. The RH Law cannot infringe upon this mutual decision-making, and endanger the institutions of marriage and the family.

The exclusion of parental consent in cases where a minor undergoing a procedure is already a parent or has had a miscarriage (Section 7 of the RH Law) is also anti-family and violates Article II, Section 12 of the Constitution, which states: “The natural and primary right and duty of parents in the rearing of the youth for civic efficiency and the development of moral character shall receive the support of the Government.” In addition, the portion of Section 23(a)(ii) which reads “in the case of minors, the written consent of parents or legal guardian or, in their absence, persons exercising parental authority or next-of-kin shall be required only in elective surgical procedures” is invalid as it denies the right of parental authority in cases where what is involved is “non-surgical procedures.”

However, a minor may receive information (as opposed to procedures) about family planning services. Parents are not deprived of parental guidance and control over their minor child in this situation and may assist her in deciding whether to accept or reject the information received. In addition, an exception may be made in life-threatening procedures.

5. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the freedom of expression and academic freedom

NO. The Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of Section 14 of the RH Law, which mandates the State to provide Age-and Development-Appropriate Reproductive Health Education. Although educators might raise their objection to their participation in the RH education program, the Court reserves its judgment should an actual case be filed before it.

Any attack on its constitutionality is premature because the Department of Education has not yet formulated a curriculum on age-appropriate reproductive health education.

Section 12, Article II of the Constitution places more importance on the role of parents in the development of their children with the use of the term “primary”. The right of parents in upbringing their youth is superior to that of the State.

The provisions of Section 14 of the RH Law and corresponding provisions of the IRR supplement (rather than supplant) the right and duties of the parents in the moral development of their children.

By incorporating parent-teacher-community associations, school officials, and other interest groups in developing the mandatory RH program, it could very well be said that the program will be in line with the religious beliefs of the petitioners.

6. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the due process clause

NO. The RH Law does not violate the due process clause of the Constitution as the definitions of several terms as observed by the petitioners are not vague.

The definition of “private health care service provider” must be seen in relation to Section 4(n) of the RH Law which defines a “public health service provider”. The “private health care institution” cited under Section 7 should be seen as synonymous to “private health care service provider.”

The terms “service” and “methods” are also broad enough to include providing of information and rendering of medical procedures. Thus, hospitals operated by religious groups are exempted from rendering RH service and modern family planning methods (as provided for by Section 7 of the RH Law) as well as from giving RH information and procedures.

The RH Law also defines “incorrect information”. Used together in relation to Section 23 (a)(1), the terms “incorrect” and “knowingly” connote a sense of malice and ill motive to mislead or misrepresent the public as to the nature and effect of programs and services on reproductive health.

7. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the equal protection clause

NO. To provide that the poor are to be given priority in the government’s RH program is not a violation of the equal protection clause. In fact, it is pursuant to Section 11, Article XIII of the Constitution, which states that the State shall prioritize the needs of the underprivileged, sick, elderly, disabled, women, and children and that it shall endeavor to provide medical care to paupers.

The RH Law does not only seek to target the poor to reduce their number, since Section 7 of the RH Law prioritizes poor and marginalized couples who are suffering from fertility issues and desire to have children. In addition, the RH Law does not prescribe the number of children a couple may have and does not impose conditions upon couples who intend to have children. The RH Law only seeks to provide priority to the poor.

The exclusion of private educational institutions from the mandatory RH education program under Section 14 is valid. There is a need to recognize the academic freedom of private educational institutions especially with respect to religious instruction and to consider their sensitivity towards the teaching of reproductive health education.

8. Whether or not (WON) RA 10354/Reproductive Health (RH) Law is unconstitutional for violating the prohibition against involuntary servitude

NO. The requirement under Sec. 17 of the RH Law for private and non-government health care service providers to render 48 hours of pro bono RH services does not amount to involuntary servitude, for two reasons. First, the practice of medicine is undeniably imbued with public interest that it is both the power and a duty of the State to control and regulate it in order to protect and promote the public welfare. Second, Section 17 only encourages private and non-government RH service providers to render pro bono service. Besides the PhilHealth accreditation, no penalty is imposed should they do otherwise.

However, conscientious objectors are exempt from Sec. 17 as long as their religious beliefs do not allow them to render RH service, pro bono or otherwise (See Part 3b of this digest.)

B. WON the delegation of authority to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to determine WON a supply or product is to be included in the Essential Drugs List is valid

NO. The delegation by Congress to the FDA of the power to determine whether or not a supply or product is to be included in the Essential Drugs List is valid, as the FDA not only has the power but also the competency to evaluate, register and cover health services and methods (under RA 3720 as amended by RA 9711 or the FDA Act of 2009).

C. WON the RH Law infringes upon the powers devolved to Local Governments and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)

NO. The RH Law does not infringe upon the autonomy of local governments. Paragraph (c) of Section 17 provides a categorical exception of cases involving nationally-funded projects, facilities, programs and services. Unless a local government unit (LGU) is particularly designated as the implementing agency, it has no power over a program for which funding has been provided by the national government under the annual general appropriations act, even if the program involves the delivery of basic services within the jurisdiction of the LGU.

In addition, LGUs are merely encouraged to provide RH services. Provision of these services are not mandatory. Therefore, the RH Law does not amount to an undue encroachment by the national government upon the autonomy enjoyed by LGUs.

Article III, Sections 6, 10, and 11 of RA 9054 or the Organic Act of the ARMM merely delineates the powers that may be exercised by the regional government. These provisions cannot be seen as an abdication by the State of its power to enact legislation that would benefit the general welfare.

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