By Jen Ross
Friday, April 1, 2005
In Chile, where two women lead the presidential race, emergency contraception has become an incendiary campaign issue after a health official said the government was planning free distribution of the "morning-after pill" and was fired within hours.
SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)--"Emergency Contraception: It's your decision; It's your right."
That's how the posters by Chile's Health Department were supposed to advertise a new policy of making the so-called morning-after pill freely available in Chile.
Now, 10,000 such posters--which were supposed to be plastered around the nation by now--are gathering dust in a warehouse.
Antonio Infante, the country's sub-secretary of health, has lost his job.
Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz is urging all candidates to be clear about where they stand on emergency contraception.
And the Concertacion de Partidos por la Democracia (Concertacion)--the four-party, left-wing coalition that has been ruling Chile since its 1990 return to democracy--faces strains as its leading presidential candidates, both female--Soledad Alvear and Michelle Bachelet--prepare to face each other in primaries in July.
These domino-effect events are the latest outbreak of tensions between the government and the Catholic Church over emergency contraception. The current episode began on March 8, when Infante--at that point he was still the country's sub-secretary of health--addressed an event marking International Women's Day.
Infante--a member of the ruling coalition's more progressive El Partido Por la Democracia (PPD) party--outlined a new policy on emergency contraception. He said the government--in order to improve access for poor women and to reduce the mounting number of unwanted teen-age pregnancies--would distribute emergency contraception to all who wanted it, free of charge.
At $25 a dose, Infante and others within the government had concluded that the cost of the contraceptive was prohibitive for most low-income women. Three times as many unwanted teen-age pregnancies occur in Chile's poorest municipalities than in its richest.
Infante added that no date yet had been fixed for when emergency contraceptives would become freely available because some details had yet to be finalized.
Within hours of Infante's remarks his boss, Health Minister Pedro Garcia, fired him.
"I really can't believe this," said Gilda Salinas, a volunteer who was still assisting with International Women's Day activities when she learned of Infante's dismissal. "We need to keep advancing on reproductive rights, not going backwards. Infante was trying to make progress. But now, it's all for nought."
Internal government polls indicate that 70 percent of the population backs the free distribution of Postinor-2 for rape victims, although only 50 percent support universal distribution.
Alvear, former minister for women's issues and the Christian Democratic presidential candidate, has come out firmly and strongly against the use of Postinor-2--the form of emergency contraception that has been approved in Chile--by anyone other than a rape victim.
"The government has said the morning-after pill should only be used for rape cases and I agree firmly with that," she said in response to reporters' questions after the March 8 incident.
Her opponent, Michelle Bachelet, a physician with the Socialist party, who is also backed by the PPD--has so far held her silence. But since the government approved the pill in 2001, when she was the health minister, she is widely assumed to support a policy of liberal distribution and access to emergency contraception.
Patsili Toledo Vasquez, the lawyer who represented La Morada, a Santiago-based women's center in the legal battle to win approval for legalizing the use of emergency contraception, says Bachelet knows that voicing support for the pill right now would cost her votes.
"Why get involved in such a controversial issue, with few political dividends?" says Toledo.
So far, Bachelet is leading Alvear by a wide margin of more 25 percentage points, according to a poll published in early March by the daily El Mercurio-Opina. Both women, meanwhile, were also polling slightly ahead of the right-wing candidate, Joaquin Lavin.
Chile's Supreme Court rejected the sale of the emergency contraceptive Postinal in 2001. Later that year, the government approved Postinor-2, sparking a new legal offensive by religious and conservative groups who argued the pill was a form of abortion.
The government has consistently countered that charge, saying that emergency contraception pills work like other birth control pills to prevent pregnancies. It has also said it should only be used in emergencies, not on a routine basis.
Amid the protracted legal battle that began in 2001, sales went forward. About 18,000 doses sold in pharmacies in 2004. Last July, Postinor-2 got the final go-ahead, when the Court of Appeals rejected the latest appeal against its sale and distribution.
Although the ruling legalized marketing of the drug, access policy was left to the government. The Ministry of Health decided to incorporate the pill as part of its program for preventing unwanted pregnancies and announced it would distribute it freely to rape victims.
The Catholic Church lashed back. Cardinal Errazuriz launched an anti-pill campaign, which included a letter urging Catholics to voice their opposition. Thousands of women took to the streets in various cities across the country to protest the pill's distribution. Some mayors overstepped their powers and announced they would prevent its distribution in their cities.
Health Department documents released after the debacle show that new distribution policy was set in January. But Health Minister Garcia--a member of the largest party in the coalition, the Christian Democratic Party, which mostly represents Chile's political center-left, but with a strong Catholic base--has denied knowing about it.
Infante has said observers can "draw their own conclusions" about his dismissal.
Detractors accuse Garcia of firing Infante for political reasons; charges to which he has so far declined to address.
Socialist Congressman Fulvio Rossi says Garcia's decision to sack Infante was a direct result of pressure from the Catholic Church and the Christian Democrats, who didn't want to hurt a potential presidential candidate Alvear's chances of winning the July 31 primaries.
"The government's main concern was not to that we have sound health policies for the poor," contends Rossi. "What was decisive here was not to introduce a divisive issue within the Concertacion. Some got scared that people might start to ask the candidates how they felt about these issues."
Toledo, the lawyer for the Santiago women's center, agrees. "The issue of reproduction and sexual rights in Chile has been dominated by the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the Church has tremendous political power here."
Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist who returned to her mother's homeland a year ago, to tell its untold, or under-told, stories.
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