When does life begin? Senate won't say

Posted at 11/19/12 10:46 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Does human life begin when a man's sperm meets a woman's egg? Or when the fertilized ovum implants itself in the woman's uterus? Does life start when a fetus' heart starts beating on its own? Or does being human begin when a baby leaves its mother's body?

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on Monday tried to define when the beginning of life starts as part of his proposed amendments in the reproductive health (RH) bill sponsored by Senator Pia Cayetano.

The seemingly innocuous issue on the definition of conception has dogged both "pro-life" and "pro-choice" activists for years, as the issue is tied to reproductive rights and abortion.

If the law defines human life as starting at the point when the sperm fertilizes the egg, it may mean the banning of some contraceptives such as birth control pills that don't allow a fertilized ovum to attach itself properly on the womb.

It may also deprive a woman to avail of the right to terminate her pregnancy even if her life is in danger, as in the case of a woman who died in Ireland in October.

Enrile believes that the RH bill, if passed into law, should say when life begins, even if medical experts and scientists do not have a unified view on the contentious issue.

"Conception refers to successful penetration of an ovum by a spermatozoa in the fallopian tube, known as fertilization," he said.

This drew a reaction and opposition from Cayetano and fellow Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

"Proposed amendment is a categorical statement that conception begins at fertilization. It has no impact on contraceptives," Santiago said.

"It will not serve the interest of clarity and will not support scientific evidence. Contraceptives occur prior to fertilization," she added.

She also said the issue on conception -- and on when human life begins -- should not be within the scope of the current RH bill being tackled by lawmakers.

People watching on the sidelines of the debate aired their concern at Enrile's proposed RH bill amendment.

"There is no global consensus on 'when does life begin?' So how do we resolve the stalemate at the Senate?" said Dr. Eric Tayag, assistant secretary at the Department of Health.

"This will define the RH bill for years to come or will determine its passage for now," he said on Twitter.

ANC anchor and opinion writer Teddy Locsin Jr. said the Senate should not have even tried to take up the tricky issue of conception.

"Now we are wasting time, fixing what cannot be legislated, time of conception. Science, not law, will show that one day," he said.

He added that the idea of conception beginning at fertilization is just opinion. "You cannot even legislate a fact, just a norm."

"And people actually think there is an intelligent debate going on in the Senate," Locsin said.

He told ABS-CBNNews.com that instead of defining when life begins, the law should instead give room for case-to-case treatments, "when there is a choice between mother and child."

"Here we are thinking we are smarter than the experts!" Cayetano told Enrile.

The Senate then narrowly voted to junk Enrile's proposed amendment, 11-9.

The senators who wanted the RH bill to define conception were Enrile, Koko Pimentel, Tito Sotto, Bong Revilla, Lito Lapid, Ralph Recto, Jinggoy Estrada, Manny Villar, and Gringo Honasan.

Pimentel, in an interview on ANC Monday night, defended his decision to support Enrile's proposal.

"Defining terms is done regularly in the Senate. Defining conception is not extraordinary," said Pimentel, who is opposing the RH bill.

Enrile is scheduled to present his other amendments in the RH bill in the following days.