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In Chile, free morning-after pills to teens

By Jen RossCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2006


This month, Chile began to combat the problem of high teen-pregnancy rates by distributing free morning-after pills to girls as young as 14 years old.

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Government support of emergency contraception is not unusual in Latin America or in Europe. Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the over-the-counter sale of morning-after pills (known as Plan B), for women over 18. Girls age 17 and under must have a doctor's note.

But the Chilean government, by giving away the pills to such young girls, is igniting a storm of opposition from critics who say it undermines parents and is tantamount to abortion.

On Sept. 2, Chile's health minister, Maria Soledad Barria, announced the distribution of morning-after pills in public health clinics as part of a broader set of new regulations on fertility. Since then, the outcry has been building from religious groups, the political right, and even some of the government's own coalition partners in Congress. Many are up in arms about the measure, which they say encourages early sexual activity.

The Roman Catholic Church, long opposed to the use of emergency contraception, calls it a veiled form of abortion. Last week, Chile's Episcopal Conference released a statement in response to the government's new regulations, saying they were "reminiscent of public policies established in totalitarian regimes by which the State aimed to regulate the intimate lives of its citizens." The Chilean constitution forbids "doctrines against the family or those which advocate violence or a concept of society ... of a totalitarian character."

Chile is predominantly Catholic and, until recently, issues related to reproductive and sexual rights have been dominated by the Church, explains Patsili Toledo, a lawyer who represented a Santiago-based women's center in the legal battle to win approval for legalizing the use of emergency contraception. "Unfortunately, the Church has tremendous political power here.... Reproductive rights are an issue with few political dividends."

On Friday, two conservative mayors in Santiago asked Chile's courts to halt the government's program until the courts consider arguments that it violates the constitutional rights of parents to protect "the physical and psychological integrity" of their children.

President Michelle Bachelet responded to the uproar, arguing that the state has a responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancies. "There are roles that the family undertakes and which no one can replace," Ms. Bachelet said in a national radio interview last Wednesday. "But naturally the state has another role to fulfill, and that is to offer a range of alternatives, which people can choose between – according to their own family values and principles."

Emergency contraception has long been contentious in Chile. In March 2001, while Bachelet was health minister, the use of the morning-after pill by prescription was approved. It was quickly challenged before the courts on the grounds that it was abortive and therefore violated Chile's constitutional protection of "the life of those about to be born." That April, the Santiago Court of Appeals prohibited the distribution and sale of the pharmaceutical Postinal. Chile's Institute of Public Health responded by approving a different pill, Postinor-2, with the same active ingredient (levonogestrel). After repeated attempts to ban that pill, in November 2005, Chile's Supreme Court made a final ruling which legalized the use of the morning-after pill. With the exception of Ecuador earlier this year, similar challenges have been made and lost in other Latin American countries.