Monday, October 17, 2011

Debating the Philippine Reproductive Health Bill: A Commentary

By Son of Bastiat

 “I humbly submit that the struggle for an RH bill to protect the health and quality of life of the mother and child in the context of unspeakable poverty is part of liberation theology” adding that Vatican II taught the "primacy of conscience." (Philippines Sen. Santiago’s remarks in a Sun Star 8/2/11 interview)

There is enough hard evidence in other countries that followed the same path of population control, which shows that a contraceptive mentality inevitably leads to a significant rise in abortion, divorce, single mothers and mentally unbalanced adolescents”. (Dr. Villegas, Philippines’ economist in “Little Chance for RH Bill”, 10/15/11)

Like the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ shouts reverberating 3.5 miles away from where this essay is being written, the above quotes read as if their respective positions are clear and sufficiently “joined” as to make a reasoned debate possible. In fact, that is far from being the case, if only because these quotes occurred at two different times and media sources (an online column and interview) and juxtaposed in a contrived debate to highlight the essence of two diametrically opposed positions on the RH Bill. They represent two radical opposed worldviews, neither one effectively articulated by their advocates. Is it due to the RH Bill’s intrinsic complexity, modern man’s intransigence, his pride? Or all of it combined?     


Begin with the Senator’s views, which her quote above succinctly summarizes:

a). Due to unspeakable poverty, an RH Bill will protect the health and quality of mother and child. She makes no reference to the widespread view that overpopulation promotes poverty, only that controlling it promotes human welfare. 

In claiming that an RH Bill will protect the health and quality of life of families, she sidesteps but does not avoid making the conclusion that overpopulation is a major cause of poverty. As a legislator she is no doubt aware that much of the government’s budget is appropriated for poverty amelioration; AND that scarce national resources (land, oceans, etc.) are preempted for basic survival by a predominantly poor and underproductive population. These factors are deemed to reduce the amount of resources that can be used to “grow the pie” or improve its quality. With fewer people, resources and income per capita are much higher. The correlation between population size, per capita income, quality of life and wellbeing in neighboring countries is cited “as proof” of the wisdom of population control policy. 

Bernie Villegas’ comments suggest that while he agrees with this view in the short term, it is fraught with major problems in the long run. He refrains from zeroing in on Santiago’s (and RH Bill advocates) views that overpopulation reduces future growth potential, by citing past research done by Clarke and more recently by Nobelist Gary Becker, to the effect that this redirection of resources from future to current use accounts for a much smaller impact on permanent growth than is being claimed based on “commonsensical observations” drawn from experience which are almost always biased. Assuming that it is huge, China’s situation should serve as a useful reminder of this one-dimensional fallacy: even if its “One-Child-Per Family” had allowed it to amass resources to bankroll its growth, how efficiently they were used, what they brought China’s poor in exchange and where the policies they encouraged are leading China today are far more important than the simplistic resource mobilization issue it addressed.  

These statements ought to caution those inclined towards casual empiricism (i.e., analyses drawn from random experiences) from extending their individual conclusions into the realm of aggregate and multi-generational policy making. This knowledge domain error (see le Compte de Nouy) is more fatal than many RH Bill advocates realize and yet is not pointed out to them by RH Bill opponents. It illustrates the incompleteness of the debate. But why be surprised when the more basic limitations of population-vs-growth models have not been recognized, despite the known shortcomings of statistical analyses when set against the broader context of scientific truth validation and theory of knowledge?    
Score this round for the Senator, but not because she out-argues Villegas on this false economic issue but for the latter’s hedging, in hopes that RH Bill advocates will see that short term tradeoffs between growth and population are not only spurious (“Even assuming, without granting, that population control can help in the important task of eradicating poverty. . .”) but nonsensical especially in the long run when more factors other than economic growth matter. But that’s going ahead of our essay.   

Let’s then go to her second argument:

b). “Liberation Theology” and Vatican II have struck at the roots of social inequality that an RH Bill is designed to mitigate, and the Church has a “mission that includes the struggle on behalf of justice, peace, and human rights." Humanae Vitae the encyclical on which the Church bases its opposition to birth control was based on a “minority’ view, adding that 80% of US Catholics do not follow it.

Let’s dispose of the easier part of her position – that the real reason the encyclical Humane Vitae got adopted by the Church despite being held or accepted only by a “minority” of Catholics, is that electors were railroaded into passing it during the feverish route to Vatican II.  Asserting that some encyclicals are passed over the wishes of the “majority” is mainly a case of verification but the more meaningful question is: can most matters of core importance to a Faith be vetted by its followers? If it is the way a faith’s central tenets are decided, then the crucial element of its unquestioned acceptance disappears; belief by consensus simply means an absence of Faith. The fact that 80 % of members profess to not follow a faith is not to be held against it; that simply means that such Faith does not exist no matter what its members believe. To see why this not solipsism or sophistry, consider what happened when Socialists began to deviate from the strict principles laid down by Marx and Lenin. In due time the socialist camp splintered into factions that ultimately got co-opted by their adversaries (China’s “market socialism” being the best example). The only reason Islam escaped this fate is because its coherence depends less on doctrinal homogeneity and more on coercion. Even so, it is split into two feuding sects. 

Because the Church would not countenance the temporal and totalitarian impulses that drive Socialism and Islam, that existential risk is more serious in the Church’s case since its doctrinal integrity depends on the acceptance of all individual tenets; reject one and the entire edifice falls flat on its face. Absence of members’ coherence, rather than a radical change in one or more core tenets, explains Santiago’s claim that “the absolute authority of the Church has grown weaker over the years”.     

This brings the second, major fallacy in the Senator’s position: Liberation Theology. Santiago claims that the RH Bill draws its legitimacy from the Church’ mission to help the poor but as a Theology specialist, does she believe this? Is it the Church’s stated central mission or merely one of the many avenues that it pursues while carrying out its primary mission (of saving souls)? It surely cannot be the primary one, if only because the Church is a transcendental institution that finds it must minister to the temporal needs of its members. For the Church to involve itself beyond this, even if not at the expense of its spiritual one, would be to risk diluting its primary mission, with all the potential for errors that involvement in social causes lead to. If this is not obvious to a theology scholar, all she has to do is to review the Church’ mixed record of advocating for social causes (e.g., the US bishops’ 70s disastrous position on economic equality or of Archbishop H. Camara’s amateurish dabbling in Latin American development). Suffice it to mention that some of the most spectacular welfare and social justice program failures began as well-meaning religious initiatives to help the poor. If in this fairly straightforward temporal area the Church did a less than fully creditable job, what more with complex, transcendental issues like birth control?    

To put it bluntly the Church has no excuse in involving itself in these debates for social justice reasons. Villegas did not highlight this in his article at all, but again this omission, just like the first above, is why RH Bill advocates, especially those carrying religious baggage end up losing sight of, and getting more confused about their primary position. I would score this at 0-0 as neither side floors the other down.

And finally their third bone of contention:

c). Conscience is what matters above all, being “inviolable” and that a Catholic has a right to follow her own conscience “even when it is erroneous” (ie., meaning it goes against some “objective” standard).

Of all the Senator’s quotes, this one is the most perplexing, both in point of logic and origin, coming as it does from someone educated in theology and law. In the first place, an erroneous conscience presupposes the existence of some kind of moral reference for otherwise there would be no basis for assessing blame, which is the rationale for that claim. But in using the term “erroneous” the Senator explicitly declares that the Church’ tenets are not the only standard by which to base such judgment. It leads her straight to the pre-modern era traps of infallibility and relativism, which have been argued, fought, warred over and resolved since medieval times, resulting in the outcome now known as the Great Separation (not between Church and State but between Man and his Creator).     

Here is where Villegas delivers the knock-out punch. Briefly, the debate between the RH Bill advocates revolves around whether Man’s wishes will prevail over God’s. Santiago herself starkly states it: “In the past, Catholics simply obeyed the bishops. But now, many Catholics are no longer willing to give blind obedience to the Church”. But as pointed earlier, real faith not being a matter of consensus, continued membership in it is a tacit admission that it speaks for God (unless believers are schizophrenic dualists who by definition are deniers of one truth). Villegas’ arguments center around the subtle point that going against God’s will would in the long run be dangerous for Man, even if man refuses to accept it as such. No Nobel economists are needed to prop this position up because it indeed is what happens when man denies accountability to an entity other than himself, regardless of whether it involves faith or not. It was the ultimate (but never admitted) cause of the recent financial crisis. It is the reason why the EU is now imploding into pieces, followed in due course by China. It is what will happen to the Philippines if the RH Bill is passed into law and the contraceptive mentality takes hold. Here’s what UK Prime Minister Cameron attributed the recent rioting in London and nearby cities to: “Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if our choices have no consequences. Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort”. (The Financial Times, 8/16/11). These are the RH Bill’s longer term and secondary effects that one side ignores and another sidesteps hoping it will just sink in. But it won’t.

What Villegas says is that passing the RH Bill will perpetuate a cultural dependency and moral weakness that abets all the ills that afflict contemporary Philippine society, with zero assurance that the resources freed by controlling population growth can be turned into material, let alone intangible benefits. It is the existential risk, not the temporary trade-offs that make RH Bill’s passage disastrous. It is just amazing that an ancient debate that has long been clarified, manages to emerge in sophisticated raiment, revealing again that man’s pride doesn’t let him learn from the wisdom that has been learned for ages. The theologian Barth said. “Look around you. . .all you see is chaos, irrationality and downright perversity of the world man has made for himself. What was the mad carnage of the Great War but the predictable result of humanism, which modern theologians celebrated rather than judged? They have wished to experience the known god of this world”, Barth said, “Well! They have experienced him”.


This essay closes by quoting the final paragraph of an essay that the author wrote assessing J. Burnham’s classic 1964 book “The Suicide of the West” (Gateway Editions):

How Western Societies Really Die
What they are saying to us today is that if you want to keep the Federal government open you have to throw women under the bus” is how Sen. P. Murray (D., Wash) depicted the contentious budget debates among Republicans and Democrats in which funding for Planned Parenthood (a pro-abortion group) came close to shutting down the US government. The terrible fact is that the economic future of the US is held hostage by an issue that doesn’t even represent 0.15 % of a budget that liberals have larded with entitlements so that 1-2 % cuts are “draconian” and sufficient to derail compromise. If the US economy implodes it will not be from wars or invasions but from decisions that made killing unborn babies kosher.

Far from stimulating the economy in the way it supposedly did for its neighbors, the RH Bill will unleash destructive values that will keep the Philippine economy from taking off. But don’t count on “modern” RH Bill advocates to supply the antidote, because their self-absorption and pride are too weak to detect it. Writing in Perspectives in Political Science, Summer 2009 Volume 8 Issue 3, Ralph Hancock cited Hans Blumenberg’s view “that the modern age emerged from a movement not of reason but of self-assertion, although the purity of this self-assertion was obscured by attempts to respond to now meaningless questions left over from the challenge of an essentially Gnostic nominalism”.  Understanding the RH Bill’s dangers calls for mastery of a difficult philosophical issue and tempering man’s exaggerated view of the self.   

 [Copyrights VRR@NYC2011, see for the rest of the other blogs]

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