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Did the 1987 Constitution Define Conception as Fertilization?

One of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, Bernardo M. Villegas, who happens to be an Opus Dei member and a vocal opponent of the Reproductive Health (RH) bill, made a claim that conception is defined as fertilization.

In an article published in The Manila Bulletin in December 2010, Villegas confidently wrote:

In the Philippine Constitution of 1987, conception is defined as fertilization, the moment the egg is fertilized by the sperm. This was the majority decision (32 to 8) of the members of the Constitutional Commission of 1986 convoked by the late President Corazon Aquino…No amount of further debate will change that. Only a charter change can modify that conclusion… In the meantime, any contraceptive device (e.g. the “morning after” pill, the IUD, etc.) that can be medically demonstrated to be abortifacient, i.e. killing the fertilized ovum before implantation, will always be declared unconstitutional, whether or not the RH bill is passed.

Which makes one wonder, why then, during the period of amendments for the RH bill, particularly at the plenary session last November 19, did Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile propose to define conception as “the successful penetration of an ovum by a spermatozoa in the fallopian tube, otherwise known as fertilization, when a new life begins, to form in the mother’s womb.”

In the Records of the Constitutional Commission, there was a discussion between Bernardo Villegas and Blas Ople:

MR. OPLE: We say, “Protect the life of the unborn from the moment of conception.” Is there in jurisprudence anything now that will help us visualize the precise moment, the approximate moment when conception begins and, therefore, the life of this new human personality entitled to all the protection of the laws in the Constitution begins? Is there any standard legislature or jurisprudence that will support an interpretation of the moment of conception?

MR. VILLEGAS: Jurisprudence? None… We believe that the abortion debate from a scientific standpoint must proceed on the assumption that…human life begins at fertilization of the ovum.

MR. OPLE: But we would leave to Congress the power, the mandate to determine.

MR. VILLEGAS: Exactly, on the basis of facts and figures they would obtain from experts.

MR. OPLE: Yes, to legislate a kind of standard so that everyone will know what moment of conception will mean in terms of legal rights and obligations

So as far as the Commission was concerned, conception was not defined in the 1987 Constitution and the power and mandate to determine was left to congress. And since Enrile’s proposed definition lost 9 to 11, there is still no legal definition of conception up to now.

The proposed amendment of Enrile that did get approved, however, was to define abortifacients as “any drug or device that induces abortion or the destruction of a fetus inside the mother’s womb.” Based on this definition, drugs or devices that prevent the implantation of the fertilized ovum are not considered abortifacients.

Now what does this all mean for the RH bill? Actually, not much. Contrary to the opponents’ claims that it will promote abortion, the RH bill is not defined by the pill or the IUD or any contraceptive drug or device that may or may not prevent implantation. The RH bill is about providing informed choice and free access to safe, effective, and legal means of family planning, and this even includes natural methods. If certain contraceptives are declared abortifacient by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an RH law will not provide for their distribution.

And to show their good faith, the authors at the lower house made an amendment to make sure that the services, methods, devices, and supplies provided by the State “do not prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum.” So even as the term conception is yet to be legally defined, the authors already took the initiative of crafting the bill to fit the conservative definition, which means fertilization, in case it gets adopted.

So the next time you hear the anti-RH folks say “abortifacient” and “unconstitutional,” you know that they are lying or parroting a lie out of ignorance. Either way, you know that their objection is absurd and that their argument was not forged with intellectual honesty and an openness to dialogue.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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