On January 30, 2008, twenty petitioners, mostly very poor married Catholic women residing in Manila, filed a Petition for Certiorari and Prohibition, praying that the Court of Appeals declare null and void Executive Order No. 003, issued by the Office of the Mayor of the City of Manila in 2000.
Their lawyers, composed of University of the Philippines College of Law professors Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan, Harry L. Roque, Raul C. Pangalangan, Florin T. Hilbay and Diane A. Desierto, argue that by disregarding and patently violating the clear mandate of the Constitution, Philippine international obligations, Philippine statutes, issuances and orders to make access to reproductive health information and contraception available to all Philippine citizens, the City of Manila has clearly acted without and/or in excess of their jurisdiction.
E.O. No. 003 entitled “Declaring Total Commitment and Support to the Responsible Parenthood Movement in the City of Manila and Enunciating Policy Declarations in Pursuit Thereof” was issued on 29 February 2000 by then-Mayor Jose L. Atienza Jr. In turn, the City Health Department of the City of Manila implemented the directive as contained in E.O. No. 003 in devising and executing the City’s reproductive health policies and programs.
There is continuing implementation of these policies given that as recent as 24 January 2008, several Petitioners sought reproductive health information and artificial contraceptives from public health centers in Manila but were denied the same due to E.O. No. 003. The Petitioners said they have been denied reproductive health services in Manila health centers. A health staff told one of them “Bawal dito sa Manila ang family planning. Pro-life kami. (Family planning is not allowed here in Manila. We are pro-life.) Just go to other DOH centers like Fabella.”
Aguiling-Pangalangan says that the legality of Respondents’ acts of issuance and continuing enforcement of E.O. No. 003 raises a landmark issue: can a local government unit such as the City of Manila unilaterally prohibit its residents and constituents any and all access to artificial contraceptives and reproductive health information in favor of natural family planning methods, taking an “affirmative stand on pro-life issues and responsible parenthood”?
The case is an off-shoot of “Imposing Misery: The Impact of Manila’s Contraception Ban on Women and Families,” a landmark report on E.O. No. 003’s issuance and continuing enforcement published in 2007 by the women’s health NGO Likhaan, together with the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Reproductive Health, Rights and Ethics Center for Studies and Training (Reprocen). Following extensive interviews with Manila officials (from the office of the mayor, vice-mayor, city health officers, natural family planning, maternal and child health, the Department of Social Welfare city officer, city hospital directors, city councilor), national officials (Department of Health assistant secretary and officials in the National Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the Center for Family and Environmental Health, the Health Policy and Development Planning Bureau, the Commission on Population, the Department of Interior and Local Government, hospital directors, medical center chiefs and physicians, and a Philippine senator), nongovernmental organizations based within and outside of Manila, and residents of the City of Manila, the Report stated the following findings:
“The EO has been in force for seven years, yet despite its conflict with national and even more clearly—international law, the national government has allowed the policy to remain in effect. This is in part because of a misreading of the Local Government Code and the scope of local governments’ autonomy regarding policy-making in the area of health. The lack of an effective government response to the situation in Manila is also arguably because the policy is aligned with the current national government’s own position on family planning, which is focused on promoting NFP [natural family planning]."
For poor women in Manila, including Petitioners, “accessing services is not as simple as the government says. Fees for services, the failure of the DOH to promote information about its services, and social barriers, among others, can all contribute to preventing women from actually obtaining family planning services, even if they are available”. Hilbay, a professor of Constitutional law, points to the EO's violation of petitioners’ constitutional rights to Due Process and Privacy and the right to equal protection of the laws. “The policy of forcing manila residents into choosing between pregnancy and abstinence is, in effect, as system that compels women to suffer for engaging in acts of sexual intimacy.”
Desierto said that the Office of the Mayor of the City of Manila issued E.O. No. 003 "unilaterally and without reference to the enforcement of any existing Philippine law or ordinance of the City of Manila. By so doing, it clearly acted without jurisdiction when it arrogated legislative authority to explicitly set the policy of discouraging artificial methods of contraception under E.O. No. 003." Roque, an international law expert, adds that the EO breaches the Philippines’ express legal obligations under international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the CEDAW and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. "Ultimately, E.O. No. 003’s ‘zero-sum’ policy espousing natural family planning discourages choice and disenfranchises women, children, and families long protected by international treaty obligations to which the Philippines is a party."
Former UP Law Dean, Raul Pangalangan said that the petition is simply about "respecting the right of people to take control over their own lives, especially poor Filipino couples who wish to determine the size of their families and plan for the future of their children." The lawyers hope that the case of Osil v. Court of Appeals will set a legal precedent and deter other LGUs from issuing similar orders and policies. ■