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CHILE: Thousands Protest Ban on "Morning-After" Pill

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Apr 23 2008 (IPS) - More than 15,000 people marched in the Chilean capital Tuesday evening to protest a Constitutional Court ruling that banned the free distribution of the "morning-after" pill by the public health system.

 Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

"This is a demonstration by the country in demand of freedom," Gloria Maira, of the Movement for the Defence of Birth Control, told IPS. "We don&#39t want any more moral dictatorships. We want to make the decisions in our beds, we want to decide on our own uterus, we want to decide how many children we will have. We do not accept the Constitutional Court decision."

Participants in the march down the main avenue in the capital, which was authorised by the Santiago city government, included women’s rights activists, university students, members of parliament from the centre-left governing coalition, and several local show business personalities.

"I think people are waking up," parliamentary Deputy María Antonieta Saa of the co-governing Party for Democracy commented to IPS. "People are indignant over what the Constitutional Court is trying to impose. We have to work to prevent the Court from turning into a dictatorship."

At the head of the march, protesters carried a huge banner reading "for the right to choose".

"The demonstration was a complete success. Thousands of people took to the streets – human rights and feminist activists, students, professional associations, all of them saying that the Constitutional Court ruling is unfair and undermines women’s freedom to make family planning decisions," Mireya García, a member of the Group of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (AFDD), told IPS.

Some of the demonstrators carried signs with the images of the 36 lawmakers of the right-wing opposition alliance who filed a lawsuit in March 2007 before the Constitutional Court, challenging the national family planning guidelines issued by socialist President Michelle Bachelet in September 2006.

Although the opposition legislators objected to several of the guidelines, the Constitutional Court only struck down the one that ordered the free distribution of emergency contraception, popularly known as the morning-after pill, by government health centres to all girls and women over the age of 14 who requested it.

Before the guideline was adopted, the morning-after pill was only sold in private pharmacies and provided in public health centres to victims of rape.

The high court ruling does not apply to sales of emergency contraception in pharmacies, which means women who can afford the pill still have access to it.

"It is unfair that people have to go to a pharmacy to buy the pill, because in some cases they can’t afford it," 19-year-old Yocelyn told IPS. "I wouldn&#39t want to drop out of school or stop working because of an unwanted pregnancy."

Emergency contraception can 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 or disrupt the ability of sperm and egg to meet in the Fallopian tubes, significantly reducing the likelihood of pregnancy.

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

But the opposition lawmakers who brought the lawsuit argued that intrauterine devices (IUDs) and the morning-after pill, both of which use Levonorgestrel as the active ingredient, are abortifacients, and that the Bachelet administration’s family planning guidelines thus violate the right to life.

The Constitutional Court ruling was announced on Apr. 4 and formalised on Apr. 18. The magistrates who declared the free distribution of the pill by the public health system unconstitutional asserted that scientific research has not conclusively proven that the pill does not prevent an already fertilised egg from implanting, by making the uterine lining less receptive.

Although the government has said that it will comply with the ruling, which the Catholic Church commended, some mayors are considering the possibility of making the morning-after pill available in their districts through non-governmental organisations.

In the midst of the debate, the question was raised as to whether the Constitutional Court had the authority to reach decisions on such far-reaching health matters, since its verdicts cannot be appealed.

Demonstrations both in favour of and against the controversial court verdict were held Tuesday, in the capital and in other cities. In the southern city of Concepción, 12 people taking part in a demonstration against the ruling were arrested.

Early Tuesday, public health workers brought the health services to a halt by walking off the job, to protest the ban on the free distribution of the pill.

In front of the Health Ministry in downtown Santiago, a shouting match broke out between the protesters and secondary and university students from Catholic schools making up the Pro Life Network, who were celebrating the Constitutional Court decision.

The students urged the government to respect "the spirit of the ruling," and not only stop distributing the pill in the public health system but also ban its sale in pharmacies.

"I am here because (the ban) is a national problem and I have to get involved," Roberto Flores, 17, told IPS during the march.

"I never imagined so many people would show up. I believe that the people here represent the majority of the population, who think very differently from the Constitutional Court," 26-year-old Patricio, who was taking part in the march with his girlfriend, told IPS.

"I hope this will provide momentum, so that once and for all decisions of public interest in this country emerge from the people, since this is a secular state, and not one ruled by minorities like the Catholic Church, (the conservative prelature of) Opus Dei, and the right," he said.

"I believe that, just as we did with the trials for human rights violations (committed during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet), our only option now in this case is to turn to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights," said the AFDD’s García.

Maira, with the Movement for the Defence of Birth Control, told IPS that the protests against the Constitutional Court ruling would continue, and that the activists would definitely take their case to the Inter-American Court.

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