Chileans at April 22 protest.

SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–Hundreds of Chileans are planning to renounce their membership in the Roman Catholic Church on April 29 as an outcry against a major blow to the government’s push for expanded access to contraception.

On April 18 Chile’s Constitutional Court outlawed distribution of emergency contraception in public health clinics to women 14 and older, a policy implemented in September 2006 by the government of President Michelle Bachelet to lower teen pregnancy rates in a country where 15 percent of births are to women 18 or younger. Emergency contraception remains available in the nation’s private pharmacies.

Over 10,000 people also marched in evening demonstrations to protest the court’s decision Tuesday.

Mujeres Publicas, or Public Women, a women’s rights group in Santiago, has used e-mail to organize the "massive apostasy," that is, an active rejection of the Catholic faith. Group members say that roughly 500 people have signed up to participate so far and they expect the figure to reach 1,000.

Participants are being asked to sign a letter requesting the Catholic Church remove their names from all records and then deliver the document to their nearest archdiocese. Women from each of Chile’s 15 regions have committed to the abandonment of their faith.

"We wanted to do something other than convoking marches that would protest the church’s public health policies," said organization spokesperson Lorena Etchberry."We are not against any religion or any church in specific, but rather we are protesting the fact that the church is interfering in matters of the Chilean government. We have the right to decide what to do with our bodies, and we also want poor women to have the right to decide."

Following the court’s ruling, Health Minister Soledad Barria said that publicly available emergency contraception redresses socioeconomic inequalities in family planning. In comments to the press, she said in Santiago’s low-income district of La Pintana 20 percent of all births are to women aged 15 to 19, while in wealthier boroughs it drops as low as 2 percent.

Barria said access to the pill lowers the number of deaths due to clandestine abortions. Although no statistics are available, health officials estimate the annual number of illegal abortions in Chile at 150,000. Chile has a population of about 16 million and has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, criminalizing the procedure in all cases.

Church Pressure on Bachelet

The Catholic Church has staunchly opposed governmental distribution of free emergency contraception. Church officials lambasted the government in 2001 when it was first made available by prescription. After Bachelet’s 2006 policy change, church officials said the pill was abortive and would promote promiscuity.

Church officials have expressed their satisfaction with the Constitutional Court, which sided with 36 legislators who brought a case arguing that emergency contraception could be abortive in nature and consequently violates the right to life enshrined in Chile’s constitution.

The ruling also criminalized the Yuzpe regimen, which inhibits egg fertilization through the consumption of synthetic progesterone and estrogen hormones, and is an earlier method of emergency contraception. Current regimens like Plan B use progestin only and is sold in Chile under the brand name Postinor 2.

The ruling did not affect the availability of intrauterine devices–also under consideration in the case–and it upheld laws permitting emergency contraception for minors without a parent’s consent.

Anti-pill lawmakers say they are considering bringing another case aimed at banning it nationwide.

The Constitutional Court makes final rulings in all matters relating to constitutional law, which means the decision cannot be overturned without a constitutional reform.

Still Available at Pharmacies

Emergency contraception, taken orally up to 72 hours after unprotected sexual intercourse to prevent pregnancy, will still be sold at pharmacies for roughly $25, but some chains have previously resisted stocking it.

"This ruling represents a huge step backwards in terms of equal (access to the pill)," Bachelet told reporters shortly after the ruling was disclosed, referring to the cost barrier posed for many in a country where 80 percent of families earn less than $800 per month.

Maria Angelica Cristi, a legislator of the opposition Independent Democratic Union and a case signer, also worries about access to emergency contraception, but in the opposite way: Too many women still have too much.

"With respect to equality, which has been harped on so much, we wanted the pill banned from the public and the private sector," Cristi said. "Obviously its effects are the same for women of all socioeconomic classes. If we had our way, we would have never allowed for such hateful discrimination."

Encouraged by the victory, Alejandro Garcia-Huidobro, a legislator who supported the case, hopes Chile will have a complete ban on emergency contraception someday. "This country’s constitution guarantees the right to life from the moment of conception," Garcia-Huidobro said. "If the pill is outlawed in pharmacies, then it should be outlawed nationwide. It cannot be constitutional in one part and not so in another."

The 36 legislators who presented the case belong to the opposition Independent Democratic Union and National Renovation parties, both of which identify with "Christian principles."

No Consensus on Science

Health Ministry officials have insisted there is no scientific data to indicate the pill is abortive. Chile’s Doctors’ Association has advocated the prescription of the emergency contraception since 2002 and has been vocal in its opposition to the ruling.

In the legislators’ court arguments, however, lawyer Jorge Reyes cited a summary of three clinical studies on the effects of emergency contraception.

Reyes said the studies–compiled by four biology professors at Santiago’s Catholic University and signed by the university rector–indicated the pill could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting itself in the uterus wall. Consequently, it could also endanger a recently fertilized egg, the brief argued.

In their 5-4 decision the Constitutional Court said that scientific evidence "cannot definitively exclude the possibility" that emergency contraception does not affect the implantation of an embryo "considered to be human beings." The only woman on the court, Marisol Pena Torres, was part of the majority.

Catholic University law professor Marco Antonio Navarro Galaz said the court’s reasoning is grounded in Chilean law. " Judges–when asked by any person or organization–will do all that is necessary in order to protect the existence of a human being that has not yet been born.’"

Local station Radio Cooperativa broke news of the ruling earlier this month, ahead of last week’s legal decision issued by the judges.

In outrage, pro-choice advocates quickly turned to e-mail, blogs and social-networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube to spread the news and organize a variety of protests.

On April 22 the Confederation of Municipal Health Workers and the labor unions National Public Employees Union and Central Workers Union carried out a work stoppage in eight Chilean cities including Santiago, the capital. The three groups said thousands of their members took part.

Matt Malinowski is the editor of the Santiago Times, Chile’s only English language daily. His freelance articles have appeared in Women’s eNews, Christian Science Monitor and EcoAmericas.