Senate defers debates on prevention of adolescent pregnancy as CEAP registers ‘strong objections’

The Senate has deferred plenary debates on the bill seeking to address teenage pregnancies following opposition from Catholic schools and other groups.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III on Tuesday proposed to suspend discussions on Senate Bill No. 1334, or the proposed "Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy Act" as he called for more consultation with sectors that would be affected by the measure.

Sen. Vicente Sotto III (Senate of the Philippines / MANILA BULLETIN)

In his interpellation of the bill sponsored by Sen. Risa Hontiveros, Sotto raised the objection expressed by the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP), a group of 1,525 Catholic schools and universities nationwide.

He said the group was not consulted especially with regard to provisions proposing to mandate the inclusion of an "age and development-appropriate comprehensive sexual education (CSE)" in schools and communities.

"This is a --- not just a large (group) --- but (an) exceedingly high point being raised by more than 1,500 Catholic schools," Sotto, an avowed Catholic, said.

"I'm surprised that a big chunk of the bill concern(s) sexuality education (and) we should have referred this measure to the Committee on Basic Education and more so, the Committee on Higher Education. I wish I could find out from the members or chairmen of the committees their position on the matter," he added.

Reading the position paper he requested from the CEAP, Sotto said the contents of the SB No. 1334 were already contained in the Republic Act No. 10354 or the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health (RH) Act of 2021, specifically, that the schools "have already integrated in their respective curricula the necessary age and development-appropriate reproductive health education" as mandated by the law.

Aside from the possible confusion that the repetition will supposedly cause, the group said requiring a standardized CSE would "also conflict with the academic freedom constitutionally enjoyed by these higher educational institutions."

"According to them, their Catholic identity as articulated in their vision and mission is the very nexus of the instruction and formation of their students. 'It is therefore becomes a very problematic issue for our members when a standardized instruction especially on matters of human sexuality is being mandated by the State'," Sotto said.

The bill would also be "punitive" to Catholic schools, he said, since implementing the CSE was proposed to be part of the conditions for their respective accreditations, said the group.

They also opposed the provision which would allow adolescents to avail themselves of RH services in public and private clinics, including school clinics: "Not only does this provide a certain level of concern for our member Catholic schools…to implement this which cannot be at the same time harmonized with basic Catholic principles on human sexuality, but more importantly, it already conflicts, if not overreaches."

Sotto said the bill was also redundant to the (provisions of) Republic Act No. 9710 or the Magna Carta of Women since it pushes the non-discrimination and imposition of sanctions on the basis of pregnancy. This was "very problematic", according to the CEAP.

"To illustrate this point, an adolescent student who was found to have committed a sexual act under scandalous circumstances -- therefore a violation of the schools handbook for immorality -- cannot use her pregnancy as a shield from the consequences of (her) actions," Sotto said, still reading the position paper.

Hontiveros admitted not consulting the CEAP. She however, stressed the urgency of the bill amid increasing numbers of teen pregnancies and the stay-at-home and quarantine protocols implemented by the government amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said the bill would accelerate the Department of Education's implementation of the CSE in the RH Act.

"Their (CEAP) main concern that the bill is redundant to the RH Law. If the RH Law s not being implemented, we should ask them to implement the program well," said Sotto, who voted against the passage of the said law in 2012.

Aside from the CEAP, Sotto also echoed reservations from local government leaders and telecommunication companies.

Sotto asked Hontiveros to consider taking the bill "back to the drawing board" before the debate on it again in plenary. He also advised his colleague to consult the government’s finance managers regarding the availability of funds for the implementation of the measure.