What exactly are we, the people, entitled to know about the President’s state of health whenever he or she goes for a medical check or is actually sick? This need not be extensively debated. The Constitution says it; it is not contingent upon public curiosity or presidential discretion or taste.
Section 12 of Article VII provides: “In case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health. The Members of the Cabinet in charge of national security and foreign relations and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines shall not be denied access to the President during such illness.”
“In case of serious illness” is the operative clause. At anytime the healthiest president could undergo some medical tests or actually get sick. He or she is not mandated by law to keep the nation posted on any minor ailment. In actual practice, however, a medical bulletin is normally issued to keep the public informed through the press. If any procedure was performed, there is usually a brief statement about it and then the usual words about the President having been given a clean bill of health.
When is a president’s illness deemed serious? If and when there is a fair chance of dying or developing some longterm complications or being permanently disabled. If the President suffers a stroke or heart attack, or tests positive for cancer and is consequently confined, physically incapacitated and no longer able to perform nomal bodily functions, then even a mere layman would know his or her illness is serious.
When that happens, Sec. 12 begins to operate. The public must be told about the true state of the President’s health. No one may bar the Secretaries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, the National Security Adviser and the AFP Chief of Staff from having access to the President, just in case any member of his family or circle of close friends should want to hide the gravity of his or her serious illness from the public and his or her immediate successor, the Vice President.
In the final years of President Ferdinand Marcos, the Cabinet and the public remained in the dark amid thick rumors that the strongman had fallen seriously ill and had secretly undergone a kidney transplant. As columnist for a morning daily at the time, having resigned from the Cabinet where I had served as information minister for ten years, I learned about the transplant and wrote about it. Sources close to Marcos confirmed this much later, after his fall from power in 1986, but not while he was in office.
The framers of the 1987 Constitution obviously had that situation in mind when they introduced the previously quoted Sec. 12. Under Sec. 11 (same Article) they also provided that “whenever a majority of all the Members of the Cabinet transmit to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of his office as Acting President.”
Such is the grave implication of serious presidential illness to the stability of the Constitution that it may not, at any time, be kept hidden from the public. The following questions may now be asked:
1. Is Mrs. Arroyo suffering from any serious sickness which Malacanang has tried to hide or is trying to hide from the Cabinet or the public?
2. Is she bedridden or incapacitated?
3. Were the tests conducted on her at the Asian Hospital related to any major complaint, and have the results been kept secret?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then we must hold her accountable to the public. It appears, however, the answer is in the negative. The heat of the controversy seems to focus rather on the report that as a much younger woman, Mrs. Arroyo had a breast implant performed on herself in the eighties. The old technology had begun to falter, and repair had to be done. It was as simple as that. It was a simple cosmetic procedure to correct something that by no stretch of the imagination could be called a disease.
Mrs. Arroyo’s spokesmen were stupid enough to try to dispute the mercilessly detailed scoop by our columnist-friend Jarius Bondoc, thereby adding to the frenzy of the text-messaging that had gone around the world. No real national interest or national security issue has been clarified by the sharp focus on this incident. But many of us seem convinced they could change the status quo just by talking to death about the hair growth that had reportedly been shaved off the presidential groin and armpits.
This kind of stuff diminishes us. We have to rise from the morass. As critics and political adversaries, it may be easy enough for us to exploit details that attack Arroyo’s feminine self-esteem rather than her politics. But our duty to Christian charity advises us against it; noblesse oblige. Our duty, it seems to me, is to elevate the public debate by segregating the serious health issue from this “woman thing” which we do not begrudge other women we truly admire and everybody else. As someone who has tried since 2001 to make Mrs. Arroyo accountable for the worst degradations in our politics I would not want it said that where I had failed to dent her political armor with fundamental questions about constitutional legitimacy and moral integrity, I finally succeeded by talking simply about her ruptured silicon and armpits.
I would not know how to defend myself from that.
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8 July 2009