SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: Debate on when life begins lives on (2)

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/16 April) – In the ponencia on the petitions to declare the Reproductive Health Law unconstitutional the Supreme Court held that conception, as stated in Article II, Section 12 of the 1987 Constitution, refers to the stage of fertilization, that is, when a sperm cell and an egg cell meet to form a zygote. It is at this stage that life begins, the majority decision said.

“The 1987 Constitution is clear: the life of a child begins ‘from conception’ and the dictionary, which is the final arbiter of the common meaning of words, states that ‘conception’ is ‘the act of being pregnant, specifically, the ‘formation of a viable zygote’,” Justice Roberto Abad said in his concurring opinion.

Citing scientific opinions, Abad further posited that since the zygote already has a genome or DNA that identifies it as a human being and determines its sex, “the union of man and woman in the fertilized ovum is the beginning of another person’s life”.

Based on the same argument, Abad added that merely preventing the woman from ovulating to produce ovum or preventing the sperm from fertilizing it does not constitute abortion. “Contraception in this sense does not violate the Constitutional right to life since the unborn has not as yet been conceived. The law may authorize or even encourage this kind of contraception since it merely prevents conception. The life of an unborn child is not at stake.”

For his part, Justice Mariano del Castillo said the paramount issue surrounding the petitions hinges on two vital questions: (1) when does the life of the unborn begin? and (2) how do we ought to protect and defend this life?

Del Castillo noted that Article II, Section 12 of the present Constitution was originally Article II, Section
9 of the draft of the Constitution which read: Section 9. The State recognizes the sanctity of family life and shall protect and strengthen the family as a basic social institution. The State shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from the moment of conception. In the final version submitted for ratification the phrase “from the moment of conception” became “from conception”.

Del Castillo said the change in wording was only to “simplify the phraseology” without altering its meaning as borne out during the deliberations by the Constitutional Commission.

He cited Commissioner Bernardo Villegas’ sponsorship speech [for the provision] that his views transcend religious differences and that during the deliberations “the meaning of ‘from the moment of conception’ was repeatedly reaffirmed as pertaining to the fertilization of the egg by the sperm.”

Four of the Justices, however, refused to adhere to the notion of prescribing an exact time when life begins in the absence of consensus on the issue within the scientific and medical community and even among the world’s major religions.

Justice Arturo Brion, while not entirely agreeing that the RH Law is fully protective of the unborn from conception, said he “slightly” differed from the way the ponencia arrived at its conclusion. “To me, the Constitution never raised the question of ‘when life begins’; in fact, this is a question that the framers of the Constitution sensibly avoided by simply adopting the formulation ‘the life of the unborn from conception. Interestingly, they even dropped the term ‘moment of conception’ since this precise moment cannot be determined with certainty.”

He added: “Unlike the ponencia, I take the view that the question of when the life of the unborn begins cannot strictly be answered with reference to time, i.e., the exact time the sperm cell fertilized the egg cell.”

Nonetheless, Brion submitted that “for purposes of constitutional interpretation, every doubt should be resolved in favor of life, as this is the rule of life, anywhere, everywhere; any doubt should be resolved in favor of its protection following a deeper law that came before all of us – the law commanding the preservation of the human specie[s].

Justice Antonio Carpio also argued that the Court could not possibly declare when human life begins, “whether upon fertilization of the ovum or upon attachment of the fertilized ovum to the uterus wall,” noting that it is a scientific and medical issue “that…has not even been settled within the scientific and medical community.”

Carpio said it should be enough for now that the RH Law protects the ovum upon its fertilization without saying that life begins upon fertilization. “Absent a definitive consensus from the scientific and medical community, this Court cannot venture to pronounce which starting point of human life is correct.”

Justice Marvic Mario Victor Leonen likewise junked the idea of the Court declaring on the beginning of life, saying such declaration would be fraught with contradictions. He said the use of the word “conception” rather than “fertilized ovum” showed that the Constitutional Commissioners were not in full agreement, and there were “glaring factual inaccuracies peddled during their discussions.”

Moreover, Leonen cautioned against using the deliberations by the Constitutional Commissioners as bases for determining the spirit behind constitutional provisions since they were “not infallible” and “their statements of fact or status or their inferences from such beliefs may be wrong. This is glaringly true during their discussions of their reasons for supporting the formulation of Article II, Section 12 of the Constitution.” He pointed out that, as Commissioner Fr. Joaquin Bernas explained, the overriding purpose of why Section 12 was formulated in such manner is to deny any opportunity of legalizing abortions.

Interestingly, Leonen, if only to emphasize how divergent the issue of when life begins is, cited a paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics which deals with various religious views on the matter. The paper says that although traditional Catholic view asserts that life begins at fertilization, “[t]he Bible, the Koran, and the Talmud do not actually say when life begins, although each has been the subject of various interpretations.” Note, however, that “even within the Catholic Church, there are differing views.”

This only proves that the debate on when life begins, a debate that is perhaps older than any set of institutional beliefs and morals, is as dynamic as life itself.

Nonetheless, as Justice Estela M. Perlas-Bernabe, another magistrate who disagreed with foisting “a judicial determination on the beginning of life” without established scientific facts, said, “the sacredness of human life and the primacy of the family are values we, despite our differences, have all come to hold true… We have built our political institutions not only as a venue for liberty to thrive, but also as a unifying space to reconcile disparity in thought.”

Meanwhile, the debate rages on. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at [email protected])