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HEALTH-CHILE: Court Stops Free Distribution of ‘Morning After Pill’

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Sep 13 2006 (IPS) - The Santiago appeals court ruled Wednesday against the distribution of emergency contraception, or the morning after pill, to girls in Chile between the ages of 14 and 18 without parental consent.

The court ruling came in response to two legal challenges against a Public Health Ministry measure that went into effect early this month, making birth control, including the morning after pill, available in the public health system free of charge to females over 14, without the need of parental permission.

Government spokesman Ricardo Lagos Weber said this afternoon that the executive branch would respect the court ruling, but would defend in court the new measure announced by Health Minister Soledad Barría on Sep. 2.

“We are going to establish the validity of our points of view, because we believe that we are right on this question, and that the government has the right to introduce this policy,” said Lagos Weber.

“What does this mean? That now a 17-year-old has to be accompanied to the pharmacies by his father to buy a condom? Why should we discriminate against the public health services, treating them differently than the pharmacies?” remarked the government spokesman, pointing out that emergency contraception is available in the pharmacies, simply by presenting a prescription.

The health minister also announced that her ministry will take legal action in court to overturn Wednesday’s ruling.

The legal challenges against the public health measure that led to the appeals court decision were filed by the mayor of the Santiago neighbourhood of La Florida, Pablo Zalaquett, and two private citizens. They were based on the argument that parents have a right to educate their children how they see fit.

The court froze the distribution of the morning after pill to adolescents in public health clinics and hospitals until it studies the question in an in-depth manner.

The appeals court said it would reach a final decision on the question once the Health Ministry has provided more details on the measure.

“This is regrettable,” said Senator Guido Girardi of the co-governing Party for Democracy (PPD). “I think this is really going to hurt this country, because there will be more teenage pregnancies – there are already 40,000 a year – more abortions, more young mothers who will die (of pregnancy and childbirth-related causes), more youth mortality, and more suffering.”

But Soledad Alvear, the president of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) – which also forms part of the ruling centre-left coalition – said that “when we’re talking about girls between the ages of 14 and 18, parental consent is important.”

The government measure on the morning after pill forms part of the new “national norms on fertility regulation” to go into effect this month in all public hospitals and clinics around the country.

Although it is popularly known as the morning after pill, emergency contraception can actually be taken up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected intercourse. The pill works by providing high levels of synthetic hormones, which interfere with ovulation and change the lining of the uterus, significantly reducing the likelihood of pregnancy.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) clarifies that emergency contraception is “not effective once the process of implantation has begun, and will not cause abortion.”

Nevertheless, the measure drew the immediate ire of the Catholic Church and the right-wing opposition parties, which consider the pill “abortive,” and argue that it will fuel promiscuity among teenagers.

They also say it violates the right of parents to make basic decisions about their children’s education and upbringing. . The PDC later joined its voice to these criticisms.

The first to oppose the measure were city councilors from the ultraconservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party, who filed legal challenges to bring to a halt the distribution of the morning after pill. (Municipal governments are in charge of administering public health clinics.)

UDI Mayor Carolina Plaza of the Santiago municipality of Huechuraba also brought legal action, presenting a dozen scientific studies that point to an alleged link between the morning after pill and breast cancer among adolescents.

The Chilean Institute of Reproductive Medicine (ICMER) angrily responded that “Plaza’s assertion is absolutely false.”

On Sep. 7, the Bishops’ Conference published an article titled “What Direction Is Chile Headed In?”, which stated that the new national norms on fertility regulation bring to mind “public policies set by totalitarian regimes that attempt to impose state control over the private lives of people based on authoritarian criteriaàthat do not respect the dignity of human beings.”

In their article, the bishops protest that the new government policy “establishes certain provisions for the entire country that were not subjected to consultation with the public or to parliamentary participation. Establishing ‘norms’ to ‘regulate’ fertility should be the focus of a broad debate, not a unilateral action by the Health Ministry, drawn up by just two organisations representative of a specific ideological tendency.”

In response to the criticism voiced by the Bishops’ Conference, Socialist President Michelle Bachelet said “We paid an extraordinary price in this country to win democracy,” and in the Chile of today, human dignity is guaranteed.

“My task, my obligation and my duty is to guarantee that all Chileansàhave real options in this area, as in others,” said the president, who underlined that she is not imposing her beliefs or her views, “but offering, as any state has the responsibility to do, options for a diverse Chile, a different Chile, where not everyone is equal and not everyone has the same possibilities.”

Paula Salvo, a lawyer with the non-governmental Corporación Humanas, told IPS that “We hope that when the court pronounces itself on the deeper underlying aspects of this issue, it will reject the legal challenges by the parents and the mayors, because they have no legal foundation on which to oppose the implementation of a public policy like this one.”

“Teenagers, as subjects of law, have a right to privacy, to decide who they have sexual relations with and how they protect themselves to prevent pregnancy or disease. And the right to privacy is above that of parental authority,” argued Salvo.

The government says the measure is strictly health-related, aimed at curbing the rise in teenage pregnancy, abortion and the birth of unwanted children. It also clarified that it would promote responsible sexuality among young people, providing them with guidance and information in the public health services.

Prior to the government announcement, the morning after pill was only available free of charge in cases of rape, although it was available by prescription in the country’s pharmacies.

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