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In Chile, free morning-after pills to teens

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Chile's court ruled that, based on scientific studies, the pill is not abortive. Some studies showthat it works to inhibit ovulation and prevent fertilization of the egg. The morning-after pill is a higher dose of a synthetic hormone used in birth- control pills.

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Emergency contraception pills have been available in Chilean pharmacies, by prescription, since 2001. But at an average cost of $20, critics say, they have been accessible only to the upper-middle classes.

A movement to provide the morning-after pill in public clinics began. In 2002, the government of President Ricardo Lagos allowed the public distribution of the pill, but only for rape victims. Last year, the government planned to announce its free, universal distribution. But it was shelved after a flurry of public protest – and the onset of a presidential election.

"There was a political decision by Ricardo Lagos not to launch these regulations last year," explains Lidia Casas, a law professor at Santiago's Diego Portales University, who specializes in reproductive-rights cases.

She says Mr. Lagos decided to postpone free distribution of the morning-after pill until after the presidential elections last December and January, for fear it would cause too much division within his own political coalition, and compromise its chances of reelection.

Since the return to democracy in 1990, Chile has been ruled by the Concertacion, a coalition of four left-wing parties. The largest is the Christian Democratic Party, which represents Chile's political center-left, but with a strong Catholic base.

This month's decision to go ahead with distribution of the pill prompted the Christian Democrats to express their dismay for not being consulted, and their concern that the new regulations could encourage premature and irresponsible sexual activity. "More than worrying about the day-after, we need to focus on the day-before," the party said in a communiqué.

But Professor Casas says their position is hypocritical and elitist. Public-health clinics have given out free condoms and birth-control pills to those 15 and older, since 1993.

"So it's only a year difference we're talking about.... This is not something that's new. It's also hypocritical because the same people, mostly from the [political] opposition, who are making a big fuss about the age are also the ones who pushed down the age for kids to be criminally liable," she says.

The government justifies the new age limit, in part, by pointing to recent changes to Chile's laws – including lowering the age of sexual consent to 14, and a new law which reduces the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 14 years.

The government also justifies the changes in the regulations in light of Chile's statistics on teenage pregnancies. According to the National Institute for Youth, 28 percent of teenage girls in Chile have initiated sexual activity by the age of 14. Bachelet says that almost 14 percent of Chilean women are mothers by the age of 14, and an average 40,000 babies are born to women younger than age 19 every year.

According to Teresa Valdes, with the Santiago-based Center of Women's Development Studies, many of those pregnancies are among girls ages 11 to 15 in Chile, and there are 21,000 teenage mothers studying in high schools. She says the government's new regulations are necessary in order to educate young women to make informed decisions.

Proponents say it's also an issue of ensuring equal access to emergency contraception, since three times more unwanted teenage pregnancies occur in Chile's poorest municipalities than in its richest.