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Miriam Defensor Santiago

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Full Name
Miriam Palma Defensor

June 15, 1945Iloilo City, Philippines (

Alma mater
University of the Philippines, VisayasUniversity of the Philippines, DilimanUniversity of Michigan, Ann ArborMaryhill School of Theology

Narciso Santiago (m. 1970)

Inventing myself, International Relations

University of Oxford (1997–1997)

Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service

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Conferment of Posthumous Quezon Service Cross Award on the Late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago

Miriam Palma Defensor Santiago (15 June 1945 – 29 September 2016) was a Filipino politician and judge, who served in all three branches of the Philippine government: judicial, executive, and legislative. Some of her alma maters are University of the Philippines, University of Michigan, Oxford University, Maryhill School of Theology, University of California, Harvard University, and Cambridge University. Santiago was named one of The 100 Most Powerful Women in the World in 1997 by The Australian magazine.


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In 1988, Santiago was named laureate of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service, with a citation "for bold and moral leadership in cleaning up a graft-ridden government agency." She ran in the 1992 presidential elections but was defeated in an election marred by allegations of impropriety by the victor. The quote, 'Miriam won in the elections, but lost in the counting.' became popular nationwide.

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Santiago became a senator of the republic in 1995 and authored more laws and bills than anyone else in the history of the Philippines. She ran again for president in the 1998 presidential elections but lost after heavy black propaganda against her which was eventually proven false. She continued her work as senator, exposing and criticizing numerous government scandals including the Priority Development Assistance Fund scam, which led to massive outrage and triggered major reforms throughout the country. She became an icon of incorruptibility, honest government service, and constitutional law. She was given numerous awards and recognition for her fight against corruption in the country.

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In 2012, Santiago became the first Filipina and the first Asian from a developing country to be elected a judge of the International Criminal Court. She later resigned the post, citing chronic fatigue syndrome, which turned out to be lung cancer. In 2016, she became part of the International Advisory Council of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), an intergovernmental body that promotes the rule of law.

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Santiago served three terms in the Philippine Senate. On 13 October 2015, Santiago declared her candidacy for President of the Philippines in the 2016 elections after her doctors from the United States declared her cancer 'stable' and 'receded', but lost in the elections. Following her death, she was called by her supporters as "the best president we never had".

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Santiago was known as the Dragon Lady, the Platinum Lady, the Incorruptible Lady, the Tiger Lady, and most popularly, the Iron Lady of Asia.

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Early life and education

Miriam Defensor Santiago Sen Miriam DefensorSantiago dies CNN Philippines

Santiago was born Miriam Palma Defensor in Iloilo City, to Benjamin Defensor, a local judge, and Dimpna Palma, a schoolteacher. She was the eldest of seven children. She graduated valedictorian in grade school, high school, undergraduate school. In 1965, Santiago graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, magna cum laude from the University of the Philippines Visayas. After graduation, she was elected to the Pi Gamma Mu and Phi Kappa Phi honor societies.

She proceeded to the University of the Philippines College of Law. There, she was champion in numerous oratorical contests and debates. She became the first female editor of the student newspaper, The Philippine Collegian, and was twice appointed ROTC muse. She graduated Bachelor of Laws, cum laude, from the University of the Philippines College of Law in Diliman.

Santiago went on a fellowship to the United States, and earned the degrees Master of Laws and Doctor of Juridical Science degrees at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She finished both degrees in a period of only one and a half years. Following school she took a position as special assistant to the justice secretary. She also taught political science at the Trinity University of Asia. She was law professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, teaching evening classes for some ten years.

She has studied at several universities, including Oxford and Harvard law summer schools; Cambridge; and The Hague Academy of International Law. She earned the degree Master of religious studies (without thesis) at the Maryhill School of Theology.

In Oxford, she was a research fellow at St. Hilda's College and also took a summer program in law at St. Edmund's Hall. At Cambridge, she was a research fellow at the Lauterpacht Research Centre for International Law.

Department of Justice career

She became a special assistant to the Secretary of Justice for ten years after her higher studies abroad. At a young age, she became a legal officer to the United Nations afterwards due to her constitutional and international law knowledge and experience.

United Nations career

Santiago served as Legal Officer of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at Geneva, Switzerland. She was assigned to the Conferences and Treaties Section. She became skilled at treaty negotiation and drafting. She resigned her position when her father in the Philippines developed prostate cancer.

Judge during martial Law

Santiago was appointed judge of the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Quezon City, Metro Manila by President Ferdinand Marcos. She was the youngest judge appointed to Metro Manila, and exempted from the practice of first serving as a judge outside Metro Manila. As a RTC judge, she quickly proclaimed a "no postponement" policy. At that time, cases were tried in segments that were usually a month apart, resulting in trials that took years to finish. Lawyers were prone to seek postponement of trial. As a result, trial judges scheduled ten or fifteen cases a day, so that they could make up for cases postponed. Santiago scheduled only five cases a day, heard each case, and disposed of the highest number of cases in her first year in office.

Santiago became nationally famous when she issued perhaps the first decision to rule against martial law. At that time, alleged illegal public assemblies were declared as crimes and were punishable by death. A large group of activist students from the University of the Philippines and Ateneo, as well as activists in the film industry, staged a rally in a central business district, and denounced the First Lady for her excesses. To retaliate, Marcos issued a Preventive Detention Action order which authorized the military to hold suspects indefinitely, without bail. The students faced the dire prospect of missing their final exams and, for many of them, missing graduation. Santiago suspended hearings on all other pending cases, and conducted whole-day trials. In the end, she ordered the military to allow the students to post bail. After promulgating her decision at the end of the day, Santiago drove herself to the state university, where she was teaching law. The Philippine Jaycees, the Philippine Lions, and the YMCA Philippines all gave her awards for judicial excellence.

Immigration Commissioner

After martial law, in 1988, President Corazon Aquino appointed Santiago as commissioner of immigration and deportation. At that time, the Commission (CID) was one of the most corrupt government agencies in Southeast Asia. Santiago declared the Philippines as "the fake passport capital of the world", and directed raids against criminal syndicates, including the Yakuza. She filled the CID detention center with alien criminals, and ordered construction of another detention center. She extended to legal aliens protection from widespread extortion by requesting President Aquino to issue an executive order that authorized the "alien legalization program".

She received serious death threats, but proclaimed: "I eat death threats for breakfast". A member of the House of Representatives delivered a privilege speech and denounced her raids against pedophile communities in Central Luzon run by alien pedophiles. Santiago responded by calling him "fungus face".

The Rockefeller Foundation named her a laureate of the Magsaysay Award for government service – "for bold and moral leadership in cleaning up a graft-ridden government agency."

Agrarian Reform Secretary

President Corazon Aquino promoted Santiago to member of her cabinet, as secretary of the Secretary of Agrarian Reform. Under a controversial law passed by Congress and signed by President Aquino, all agricultural landholdings were taken by the government and divided among the farmers. Each landowner was allowed to keep only five hectares, and each farmer received three hectares. Payment was in bonds of the Land Bank. To subvert the law, big landowners applied for conversion of the classification of their land as agricultural, to classification as commercial, residential, or industrial. The process became the widespread "conversion scandal of agrarian reform". The DAR officials themselves were the biggest culprits, because they sold conversion permits for bribes on a market rate set at certain amounts per hectare involved in the conversion. Santiago stopped the conversion scandal, and appeased the landowners by enhancing the incentives for voluntary offers by the landowners for the sale of their landholdings, which entitled them to an additional five percent cash payment. When asked if the hacienda belonging to the president's family should be covered by agrarian reform, Santiago replied that the family's hacienda should be distributed among the farmers. Shortly thereafter President Aquino accepted Santiago's resignation.

1992 Presidential Elections

Santiago organized the People's Reform Party (PRP) and ran with a senatorial ticket during the 1992 presidential campaign. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. was her running mate. While campaigning on 28 April 1991, she was severely injured in car crash, which she claimed was an assassination attempt. She was wearing a white bush jacket which became splattered with blood that gushed from a wound to her head. On orders of President Aquino, she was airlifted from Tarlac to a Manila hospital. She underwent surgery on the jaw, and at one point a Catholic priest administered the last rites of the dying. Two months later, she was back on the campaign trail.

Santiago has been dubbed as "The Iron Lady of Asia" and the "Dragon Lady" due to her scathing but bold eloquence both in leadership and writing. She cites physicist Marie Curie and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as her major influences throughout her political career, with Thatcher praising her for her book Cutting Edge during their meeting while the Prime Minister visited the Philippines.

Santiago was leading the canvassing of votes for the first five days. Following a string of power outages, the tabulation concluded, and Ramos was declared president-elect. Santiago filed a protest before the Supreme Court as electoral tribunal, citing the power outages during the counting of votes as evidence of massive fraud. Her election protest was eventually dismissed on a technicality.

The public outrage over the presidential results prompted Newsweek to feature her and her rival on the cover with the question: "Was the Election Fair?" In another cover story, Philippines Free Press magazine asked: "Who's the Real President?". The quote, 'Miriam won in the elections but lost in the counting' was popularized by the masses.

First term, 1995–2001

Santiago was first elected senator in 1995. In 1997, her presidential rival Fidel Ramos initiated a "people's campaign" for an infinite presidential term. Santiago harshly criticized Ramos' campaign and went to court. In a landmark case, Santiago vs COMELEC, she won and preserved the people's mandate for term limits. She again ran for president in the 1998 presidential elections, with running-mate Francisco Tatad, but lost amidst heavy propaganda concerning her mental health, which was later proven false.

She was one of the few senators who were against the opening of the brown envelope during the impeachment trial of then-President Joseph Estrada, who was her foe in the 1998 presidential elections. She said afterwards:

At that time, I wanted to apply the rules of court technically. Since there is no allegation of wrongdoing in connection with the notorious second envelope, I voted that we should not open the second envelope until and after the complaint had already been amended [...] I was among those demonized because I voted against the opening of the second envelope – dahil ang paniwala ng taong bayan, kung ayaw namin buksan ang second envelope na 'yan, may tinatago kami. (translation from Filipino: because in the belief of the masses if we don't want to open the envelope, then we are hiding something.)

Estrada was ousted in the Second EDSA Revolution in 2001, but was sent free in 2007 by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who was persuaded by senator Mar Roxas. Santiago lost re-election to the senate in 2001.

Second and third term, 2004–2016

Santiago ran for senator in 2004 and was elected. She focused on creating significant laws that changed the country as a whole. She ran again for senator in 2010 and won. During her three terms, she served as chair mostly of the foreign relations committee and the constitutional amendments committee. She was elected as official candidate of her party People's Reform Party, serving also as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Commission on Appointments. She exposed and named numerous jueteng (illegal gambling) lords and illegal-logging lords throughout her terms.

In 2011, Santiago was elected as a judge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which hears cases against humanity for former heads of state. She was the first Asian from a third world country to be elected to such a post. She resigned in 2014 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. She was one of the senators who backed Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona during his impeachment trial; he was ultimately impeached due to corruption.

In December 2012, she exposed that the Senate president, Juan Ponce Enrile, used Senate funds to give away as cash gifts. Every senator, except Santiago and two others, received 2 million pesos as a chunk of the Filipino population lived in poverty. This led to the Priority Development Assistance Fund scandal, which put the Senate president behind bars with charges of plunder. Santiago's live Senate hearings in the case led to public outrage and support for Santiago's call to abolish the pork-barrel system.

In October 2015, Santiago announced her intention to run in the 2016 Philippine presidential elections after her cancer was deemed 'stable' and 'receded' by doctors from the United States. She later confirmed that Senator Bongbong Marcos would serve as her running mate for vice president. Her campaign focused on the youth sector for which she heavily advocated, making use of social media. She was a landslide winner in numerous polls conducted in various public and private universities and colleges in the country. Despite this, she lost in the elections. Santiago was subsequently called "the greatest president we never had", a title which had been associated with her prior to her presidential run.

She was the first Filipino elected as a commissioner for the prestigious International Development Law Organization (IDLO) in 2016. Her role in the organization was advisory to the international law community.

Select laws authored

The many laws that Santiago authored include:

  • Reproductive Health Act of 2012, which instills reproductive health education throughout the nation, and was backed by the majority of the population while criticized by religious institutions in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
  • Sin Tax Law, which improved the taxation of the country and led to the economic revolutions that bolstered Philippine shares.
  • Climate Change Act of 2009, which mandated the entire nation to become a bastion for climate change responsiveness, mitigation, adaptation, and management.
  • Renewable Energy Act of 2008, which mandated the government to shift the energy source of the country from coal and oil into solar, wind, and other renewable sources – this became the foundation for the establishment of numerous wind and solar plants in the country which made the Philippines the 'Wind Energy Capital of Southeast Asia'.
  • Philippine Act on Crimes Against International Humanitarian Law, which safeguarded human rights in the entire nation.
  • Magna Carta of Women, which protected the rights of women in the country.
  • Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (Unifast) Act, which enhanced the educational system in the country, paving way for the intellectual revolution in urban and rural areas.
  • Cybercrime Act of 2012, which protected the nation and its people from cybercrimes which infested the country's cyberspace.
  • Department of Information and Communication Technology Act, which established the Department of Information and Communication Technology for better information dissemination and better internet speed in the country
  • Archipelagic Baselines Act of 2009, which became one of the major basises for the country's claims on maritime sovereignty, including the West Philippine Sea.
  • Retirement

    Even after retirement, Santiago continued to advocate the passage of many bills for the nation while in her Quezon City home. A few of these include: the anti-dynasty bill; an act institutionalizing an age-appropriate curriculum to prevent the abduction, exploitation, and sexual abuse of children; anti-epal bill; freedom of information bill; and the magna carta for Philippine internet freedom.

    Before her death, various groups in the country have been lauding her to join the candidacy for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Secretary-General post where the elected Secretary-General will be positioned for 2018. Among other candidates for the position are AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes of Malaysia and an unstated representative from Brunei, which is the lead country for 2018–2022 according to tradition.

    She was awarded as a "Distinguished Icon of Legal Excellence and Public Service" by the University of the Philippines in September 2016, and posthumously the "PUP Online Personality of the Year Award" by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in November 2016.


    At the age of 71, Santiago died in her sleep at exactly 8:52 a.m. on 29 September 2016 while she was confined at the St. Luke's Medical Center in Taguig from lung cancer; several reports cited that Santiago died in her residence in La Vista Subdivision, Quezon City. Her body lay in state at the Cathedral Grottos of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Cubao the following day. Following a Catholic funeral Mass, she was interred at the Loyola Memorial Park in Marikina on 2 October, beside the tomb of her son Alexander, who died in 2003.

    In September 2017, she was nominated posthumously by senator Grace Poe, her freedom of information (FOI) ally and 2016 presidential rival, to be bestowed with the Quezon Service Cross, the highest honor in the entire Republic, subject for approval of both houses of Congress and by the President of the Philippines, who was also her presidential rival.


    Although agreeing with Rodrigo Duterte's plans to shift the government's form from unitary to federal, Santiago was against it unless the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill which she authored and sponsored was signed into law. She believed that a federal form of government without an anti-dynasty law would immortalize political dynasties and oligarchs in the country, extending the political lifespan of families who controlled the country since the martial-law era.

    Charter change

    Santiago was in favor of amending the Constitution of the Philippines to enhance foreign investments in the country and to mandate that all high posts in government (senator, congressperson, president, vice president, governor, mayor, vice mayor, secretaries, undersecretaries, etc.) should have additional qualifications which are 'a college graduate' and must pass a duly-accredited government examination. Numerous politicians in the country are only high school or elementary graduates, and most college graduate officials have never passed the Civil Service Examination for Professionals (CSE-P). She argues that positions in government like administrative assistant must pass the CSE-P as a qualification, 'why not higher posts too?'.

    Anti-political dynasty

    Santiago was the principal author of the Anti-Dynasty Bill in the Senate and had been pushing for its immediate passage in Congress for more than a decade. Unfortunately, most of the congresspersons in the House of Representatives, which are the bulk of Filipino politicians, are not in favor of its passage because they are part of political dynasties.

    West Philippine Sea dispute

    She stressed during a live debate that the West Philippine Sea is a sovereign territory of the Philippines and that the country should have a better military and police force and assets and should prioritize enhancing ties with allied nations, especially in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). She was one of the international law experts who criticized China and aided in the Philippine case against China. The case was won by the Philippines in 2016. Despite this, China still does not recognize the ruling.


    Santiago was against the Bangsamoro Basic Law, saying it is unconstitutional because it specifies that Bangsamoro will become a 'sub-state' of the republic which is illegal under the law. She prefers a more constitutional form of the Bangsamoro Basic Law which does not create a 'sub-state' government.

    North Borneo dispute

    Santiago was in favor of appointing a third-party to conduct under international law "inquiry and fact-finding" to resolve the North Borneo dispute, where the third-party is approved by both the national governments of Malaysia and the Philippines. She cited the 1907 Hague Convention for the Pacific Settlement of Disputes as motivator of her legal position. She said that this can end the dispute as it did in the 1981 involvement of mercenaries in an invasion of the Seychelles, the 1987 use of chemical weapons in the Gulf War between Iran and Iraq, and the 1988 destruction of Korean Air Lines Boeing 747. She said that since no transfer of sovereignty was involved in the 1878 Deed, no transfer of sovereignty has ever passed to Malaysia. She added that the Philippines has never abandoned its claim over eastern Sabah.


    Santiago publicly advocated for the passage of a divorce law in the Philippines, saying, "Why would you force [couples] to be together if they want to kill each other by mere sight?" With respect to her position on divorce, she clarified that it should be restricted on two grounds: "an attempt on the life of the spouse by the other" and "when one spouse is already living with another person, that is adultery or concubinage." In the 2016 Presidential campaign, despite being unable to attend the second debate citing health concerns, she reiterated on Twitter her position on divorce, leaving her as the only presidential candidate to favor its legislation.

    Abortion and contraception

    Santiago was quoted as saying, "No to abortion, never. I am a very avid supporter of RH [Reproductive Health] Law, but I will definitely fight to the death against abortion as a lawyer, not necessarily as a religious person. I equate it properly with the crime of murder." While she maintained a firm pro-life position, Santiago stressed the importance of the distribution of contraceptives, especially in poverty-stricken areas. Santiago was a strong proponent of the Philippines' Reproductive Health Law which guarantees universal access to methods on contraception, maternal health and sex education. According to her, the bill was shelved for more than 13 years, citing the Catholic Church's opposition. Santiago expressed dismay when the RH Law had suffered a one-billion peso budget cut before the Congress in early 2016. She said if she will be elected, she will work for a full and conscientious implementation of the law.

    LGBT rights

    Santiago magnified the issues concerning the LGBT community before the Senate. In the wake of the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting incident in the United States, she said on a Twitter post: "The mass shooting at a club in Orlando is appalling and heartbreaking" and "I long for the day when the LGBT community no longer has to live in fear of discrimination and hate crimes". Santiago was one of the senators who advocated the immediate investigation of the Jennifer Laude case, wherein the American marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton, killed Laude, a Filipina transgender woman, in Subic, Zambales. She did not, however, speak in favor of same-sex marriage.

    Capital punishment

    Santiago favored the death penalty but only for heinous crimes, while maintaining that the justice system should be improved.


    Santiago vehemently opposed mining. According to an interview conducted by Haribon Foundation during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, the organization voted her as the "greenest" in all of the candidates. She was the main author of the Climate Change Law and the Renewable Energies Law in the Senate.


    Santiago advocated the establishment of the Department of Information which is mandated to speed-up internet connectivity in the Philippines which she described "the worst internet speed in Asia". She also advocated for the passage of the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom which protects the rights and freedoms of Filipinos in cyberspace, while defining and penalizing cybercrimes.


    Santiago advocated the establishment of a completely new railway system from Manila to Sorsogon and a new high-speed transit system connecting Metro Manila to Pampanga, Bulacan. Rizal, Batangas, Laguna, and Cavite. She also advocated the establishment of a new modernized airport and the establishment of new projects in every province in the entire country.

    Awards and honors

  • Magsaysay Award for Government Service, 1988, Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize, Magsaysay Awards Foundation
  • TOYM Award for Law, 1985 (The Outstanding Young Men) Opened to Women 1984, Philippine Jaycees
  • TOWNS Award for Law, 1986 (The Outstanding Women in the Nation's Service), Philippine Lions
  • Philippine Judges' Hall of Fame, 2015, Philippine Judges Association
  • Most Outstanding Alumna in Law, University of the Philippines, 1988
  • Gold Vision Triangle Award for government service, 1988, YMCA Philippines
  • Republic Anniversary Award for law enforcement, 1988, Civic Assembly of Women of the Philippines
  • Golden Jubilee Achievement Award for public service, 1990, Girl Scouts of the Philippines
  • Celebrity Mother Award, 1991, Gintong Ina Awards Foundation
  • Spain – Grand Cross of the Order of Civil Merit (30 November 2007)
  • Distinguished Icon of Legal Excellence and Public Service Award (2 September 2016)
  • PUP Online Personality of the Year 2016
  • Writings

    Santiago wrote at least 30 books, many of which are about law and social sciences. Among her works is the Code Annotated Series Project 2000, a series of books about laws passed by the Philippine Congress and Supreme Court decisions. The Code Annotated Series is the main part of Santiago's Legal Outreach Program. During her initial battle with cancer, she continued to work on the 2014 edition of all her law books. These were published as the 2015 edition of her Code Annotated Series, by Rex Bookstore.

    The doctoral dissertation she wrote for the University of Michigan was published as a book, Political Offences in International Law. She wrote two autobiographies, Inventing Myself  and Cutting Edge: The Politics of Reform in the Philippines.

    She published a joke book in 2014, Stupid is Forever, a collection of jokes, comebacks, one-liners, and pick-up lines she used in speeches. A sequel, titled Stupid is Forevermore, was published a year later. Both books were published by ABS-CBN Publishing. The first book was named the best-selling book of 2014, selling about 110,000 copies in one month.

    Personal life

    Defensor had a sister, Len Defensor.

    She was married to Narciso "Jun" Santiago, with whom she had two sons, Archie and Alexander; Alexander committed suicide in 2003. The couple adopted four children. She and her husband renewed their wedding vows on their 40th wedding anniversary in 2011.

    Religious views

    In an interview with Esquire years after the death of her son who committed suicide, she said:

    The only thing I know about God is that God is inscrutable. In other words, I don't know a single thing about God. I'm clueless about what God is. Maybe Jesus, or the other historical figures around which religions had been built, would be more approachable. But God itself, being on a divine level, I think it's just impermeable to human intelligence. And there is a very famous classical book called The Cloud of Unknowing. There's always a cloud of unknowing over God. I think that, since God is inaccessible to people, we tend to portray Him in anthropomorphic terms. We think of the best qualities in every person and you try and project it on a giant scale on God. So in effect, God is a man-made concept. We have no clue what God is.

    She stated in a separate interview:

    I do not understand why God can be all love and still inflict this kind of pain on people. This God is an underachiever. He does not do whatever he is supposed to be doing, whatever his sex is. Whether he's an it or a she or a he or whatever. But I'm sure that if you were a god or if I were the God, I would be doing a better job. Therefore, the only conclusion can be that possibly, God does not exist.

    In the succeeding years, Santiago returned to her faith. She was quoted as saying, "Good things happen to those who love God." Notwithstanding her defense of the Reproductive Health Law, a law that has been opposed by the Catholic Church in the Philippines, she asserted her Catholicism and remained religious as an adult, saying her prayers day and night. She cited Ecclesiastes as her favorite book in the Bible and had once considered becoming a nun.


    Miriam Defensor Santiago Wikipedia