Fighting Words

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III has refused to engage in a debate with Akbayan on the Reproductive Health bill. He said the Senate has already begun floor debates on the bill, so there would be “no point in debating it outside.” He is right. His critics have called him gutless for turning down thechallenge […]

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III has refused to engage in a debate with Akbayan on the Reproductive Health bill. He said the Senate has already begun floor debates on the bill, so there would be “no point in debating it outside.” He is right.

His critics have called him gutless for turning down thechallenge hurled at him by the Ateneo Debate Society, and he may very well be wary of tangling with the best debate team in the country. But Sotto is no slouch when it comes to fighting with words.

His arsenal of rhetoric has weapons that not even the ADS is ready for. Like a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face, for example. He has tangled with Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, author of the RH bill, and was able to give as much as he got. He was able to silence Santiago, for example, with the ultimate debate combo breaker of “Well, that is your opinion.”

Santiago, expecting a counter-argument that made sense, was speechless.

In an earlier tussle, Sotto tried to trap Santiago into agreeing that passage of the RH bill would mean millions in profits for contraceptive manufacturers and dealers. “So! The RH bill is about money, and not health!,” he said, hoping to catch the feisty senator unawares.

And that, she was. “Oh, that is unfair,” she sighed wearily, realizing that it would be easier to squeeze blood from a stone than to get Sotto, who has promised to expose the contraceptive-industry lobby backing the bill, to agree to the need for a reproductive health bill.

And that, no matter how silver-tongued debaters are, will be how any debate with Sotto, or indeed most of the Pro-Life camp, will end. To be fair, it is just as unlikely for Santiago or for Senator Pia Cayetano to abandon the bill after a debate with the University of Santo Tomas Debate Team (whom we assume with no basis are against the RH bill).

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who has yet to be sold on the bill, has said that the bill will be subject to long and heated debates at the Senate. In the end, however, each senator will have to vote according to their conscience, he said.

And there lies the problem. Consicence is a funny thing. It isn’t always logical and is not always informed. One might even argue that it doesn’t exist. But one cannot argue against conscience. Not even within the Church.

“Conscience is inviolable, and the individual Catholic has a right to follow her own conscience, even when it is erroneous,” Santiago said in one of her sponsorship speeches for the bill. It was to argue that individual Catholics can dodge dogma on this one, but it can also apply to Sotto.

Should we keep discussing the RH bill? Definitely. But there is little that can be gained from giving Sotto, or any other lawmaker, a public drubbing from university students trained to argue either side of a debate.

If anything, it will only further alienate the masses and the fundamentalists that Sotto stands with. If the middle class was offended by James Soriano’s elitist column on the English language last week, imagine how TVJ fans would feel seeing their TitoSen being mocked and baited in an actual debate. They might just riot.

Passing a law, as with running a nation, is about building a consensus. Pro-RH bill groups should continue to engage with lawmakers and to lobby for its passage. But this should be done through dialogue and not debate. Anybody who has seen any university debate team in action knows that when they talk, there is no room for dialogue.

[EMBARRASSING ERRATUM: We read it wrong. The ADS will host the debate, while Akbayan will do the actual debating. Akbayan's Leloy Claudio who challenged Sotto is from ADS. So we are half right!]