By Jen Ross
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Chile's strict abortion ban and high teen pregnancy rates have drawn international criticism, but its efforts to ward off those critiques have sparked a moral debate. Chile's efforts to sign an international protocol may be delayed as a result.
SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)--Chile's populist female president Michelle Bachelet is finding herself caught between a rock and a hard place, facing international criticism for the country's slow progress on reproductive rights and a fierce domestic backlash against her efforts to make change.
In mid-August, Chile provided a progress report before the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women at United Nations headquarters in New York. The committee is comprised of 23 women's rights experts from around the world. During the hearing, many expressed alarm over Chile's strict abortion laws and high rates of teen pregnancy.
Chile's National Institute for Youth reports 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.
On Sept. 2, Chile's health minister, Maria Soledad Barria, announced new government regulations on reproduction that aim to change those statistics by allowing the distribution of the emergency contraception pill free of charge in public health clinics for women age 14 and up. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse.
But in a country still regarded as the most socially conservative in South America, the distribution plan ignited a storm of opposition from religious groups, the political right and even some of the government's own ruling coalition members.
A legal challenge was quickly filed by a municipal mayor in the capital. On Sept. 13, the Santiago Court of Appeals ordered the government to stop providing emergency contraception to female teens age 14 to 18 without the consent of their parents. The government is appealing the ruling and President Bachelet came out in defense of the regulations, saying the state has a responsibility to respond to unintended pregnancies when families don't.
Efforts to provide emergency contraception have faced legal battles across Latin America, says Lidia Casas, a law professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago. Despite rulings against some types of pills, Casas says Ecuador is the only country in South America where emergency contraception is currently banned. In the United States, emergency contraception was approved for nonprescription sale to women over 18 in August.
But the issue remains controversial in Chile, with recent public opinion polls by various newspapers and pollsters showing slightly more opposition than support for the measure to provide emergency contraception to teens.
"It's very wrong because girls that age don't have the maturity to decide what they have to do and giving this pill to them is making them decide quickly," says 16-year-old Catalina de Vicente, as she chats with friends outside the Villa Maria private school for girls.
The argument that the pill promotes premature sexual activity was also aired by some of the government's own pol