While anatomically illiterate politicians in America babble about “legitimate rape,” a Filipino legislator opposed to birth controlhas been shedding crocodile tears in Parliament and plagiarizing speeches to bolster the case against reproductive rights.
On Aug. 13, the Senate majority leader, Tito Sotto, wept while addressing his assembled peers. The former actor told the Senate that birth-control pills, used by his wife in 1974, had led to the death of their newborn son a year later. The emotional scene shut down the day’s debate. It was the latest obstruction to passing a reproductive health law that has languished for 14 years.
Proponents of the reproductive health bill say it will address poverty, women’s rights, infant and maternal mortality, and overpopulation in a poor nation crowded with 94 million people. Though contraceptives are currently available, the general population can’t afford them. The bill seeks to offer natural and artificial birth-control options, reproductive health care and sex education in public schools.
Opponents, like Mr. Sotto and the powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, say contraception is akin to abortion. They claim the bill is an elitist and foreign conspiracy to corrupt a country in which 80 percent of the population is Catholic. They fear the erosion of family values, state intrusion on religious freedom, tacit approval of promiscuity and side effects of oral contraceptives.
Two days later, news that Mr. Sotto had plagiarized his speech spilled across blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Careful readers proved that he’d copied and pasted, without citation, large portions from as many as at least five online sources. Among them were the writings of Sarah Pope, who blogs as “the Healthy Home Economist”; a New York University Web site on the notable birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger; and an American activist named Janice Formichella, writing for Feminists for Choice. What’s more, the senator twisted their words for his own purposes.
Mr. Sotto forcefully denied responsibility rather than confessing and offering an apology. When Ms. Pope blogged her dismay at being plagiarized, the senator declared on Filipino TV: “Why would I quote from a blogger? She’s just a blogger.” His chief of staff, Hector Villacorta, told reporters that blogs aren’t copyrighted, governments are exempt from copyright laws, and parliamentary immunity protects the senator. Besides, the Philippines “plagiarized the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “Even our image was copied from God. We are all plagiarists.”
God, it seems, is also on Mr. Sotto’s side.
Among the senator’s allies is the conference of bishops, which has declared “open war” on the reproductive health bill, saying it will create “an abortion generation.” Despite separation of church and state, these bishops fancy themselves as Filipinos’ moral conscience. Their credibility has been mixed, however. Archbishop Socrates Villegas has warned that “contraception is corruption,” but an investigation last year showed that bishops accepted privileges and gifts, including S.U.V.’s, from the previous presidential administration.
The church has tried to recover power by re-emphasizing its role in society. Last year, it succeeded in banning a McDonald’s commercial showing a little boy and girl flirting cutely over French fries. It also shut down an art exhibit it deemed “sacrilegious” and warned that Lady Gaga’s Manila concert was akin to “devil worship.” The bishops have even threatened President Benigno S. Aquino III with excommunication, and 190 university professors with heresy, for their stance on the pending bill.
This “open war,” along with intellectual dishonesty of Mr. Sotto’s variety, have undermined any genuine discussion of reproductive rights. The bill is backed by anti-poverty groups, community and women’s organizations, President Aquino himself, and 70 percent of Filipinos. But its fate remains tenuous. How could this be?
The answer lies in the system that grants Mr. Sotto impunity. Plagiarism may have toppled a Hungarian president, a German defense minister and a Romanian education minister, but it’s no big deal amid the entrenched corruption of the Philippines.
Recent clear-cut plagiarism cases failed to lead to punishment for a literary icon who lifted passages from a sportswriter, a top editorial writer who stole from a young reporter and the chairman of a university’s board of trustees who copied from Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Conan O’Brien for a commencement speech. Even Supreme Court Justice Mariano del Castillo was breezily exonerated by his peers after he plagiarized from three sources and reversed their meaning in his decision against elderly Filipinas seeking reparations for sexual enslavement under the Japanese during World War II.
In all likelihood, Mr. Sotto will similarly escape unscathed without so much as censure from the Senate.
Politicians in the Philippines regularly manage to get away with greater sins. Even the Manila area’s notorious annual flooding is a result of the irresponsibility of those in charge, which has led to shortsighted urban planning, disregard for zoning laws and insufficient cooperation between the metropolis’s 17 city halls. Such chronic lack of accountability is part of the reason the Philippines ranked 129th out of 182 in Transparency International’s 2011 corruption index — alongside Syria and Honduras.
Indeed, Mr. Sotto continues his defiance. He has cast himself as “a victim of cyber-bullying” and backed a proposed law that aims to “regulate” blogs, as his supporters cheer his pluck against academics and intellectuals. He happily misrepresents research studies, avoids mentioning their outdated vintage and likens maternal mortality statistics to Nazi propaganda. He also refuses to explain how his wife’s oral contraceptive killed their son in 1975, when that pill wasn’t even on the market until 1978 and was released in Asia only in 1985.
But in the Philippines, the facts may never matter — especially when power and religion are involved. A speech cobbled off the Internet, speculation about a dead baby and a melodramatic crying fit in the Senate, sadly, ring true enough.
Miguel Syjuco, a Filipino writer, is the author of the novel Ilustrado.