By EDUARDO GALLARDO
The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 26, 2006; 8:28 PM
SANTIAGO, Chile -- Chile began supplying morning-after pills to girls as young as 14 this week under a program that has created an uproar in the politically leftist but socially conservative country, which still outlaws all abortions and only legalized divorce two years ago.
The liberalized contraceptive policy is close to the heart of President Michelle Bachelet, a socialist physician who took office as Chile's first female president in March vowing to promote equality between men and women.
"Equality means that for a person who does not have choices, who does not have options, we have to give them these options," Bachelet told The Associated Press at the United Nations last week.
It also echoes a debate between reformers and conservatives across Latin America, where the Roman Catholic Church is a powerful force.
The program provides contraceptives _ including the morning-after pill _ to girls as young as 14 without notifying their parents. Until now, the age limit was 16, and the morning-after pill was given only to women who had been raped.
The government began handing out the pills this week after an appeals court lifted an injunction won by two conservative mayors and a Catholic parents association. Pablo Zalaquet, mayor of the middle-class Santiago suburb of La Florida, called Friday's ruling "a slap in the face of Chile's mothers and fathers" and said the court battle would continue.
Health Minister Maria Soledad Barria said free contraceptives would help reduce adolescent pregnancy, especially among the poor. Her ministry says women age 15 to 19 account for 17 percent of pregnancies nationwide and estimates that 32,000 women go to hospitals each year for complications from abortions, which are illegal in Chile.
The Catholic parents association says contraceptives encourage sexual promiscuity and sexually transmitted diseases among youths, and Catholic high school students protested in the capital, carrying balloons and Chilean flags.
But many younger Chileans say their parents' generation is out of touch _ and that teenagers need medical support because they're already having sex.
"I would not use it, but I think it is a good idea to make it available at age 14, and without telling the parents," high school student Maria Jose Guzman said. "Many girls ... would be ashamed to tell them they had sex."
The morning-after pill contains the hormone levonorgestrel and prevents pregnancy by inhibiting ovulation or fertilization of an egg. To be effective, it must be taken within 72 hours of intercourse.
Religious leaders compare the pill to abortion and say it violates the right to life. A statement by Chile's Catholic bishops equates the program to "policies imposed by totalitarian regimes to establish state control over the intimate lives of citizens."
Despite Friday's court ruling, Mayor Marta Ehlers of Lo Barnechea, an upper-class district in Santiago, said her municipality will not implement the program, "even if it means that I have to go to jail."
Chile's struggle over contraception and abortion is echoed around Latin America.
In neighboring Peru, a nonprofit Catholic organization won an injunction blocking free distribution of the morning-after pill in public clinics in September 2005. Peru's Congress is now debating whether to let pharmacies sell the pills without a prescription to women over 18.
In Paraguay, church leaders have repeatedly condemned the availability of the morning-after pill and opposed efforts to distribute donated contraceptives. Argentina's leftist government is debating whether to liberalize laws that make abortion a crime in most circumstances.
And in Nicaragua, conservatives raised an uproar in 2004 when a women's group arranged an abortion for an 11-year-old rape victim.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began allowing nonprescription sales of the morning-after pill to adult women in August. Girls 17 and younger still need a prescription.
Until now, Chile has been considered a socially conservative nation. Seventy-five percent of the population calls itself Catholic and divorce only became legal in 2004.
The morning-after pill became legal in Chile in 2002 after a Supreme Court battle, and two-pill packages sell in pharmacies for $22. But the government says that price is beyond the reach of poorer women. It noted that 3,954 packages of the pills were sold over 12 months in five affluent Santiago districts, and just 344 in five poorer ones.
The policy also poses political complications for Bachelet. The Christian Democrats, the largest party in her coalition, have been reluctant to support it.
"In the case of 14-year-old girls, they should have permission from her parents," said Sen. Soledad Alvear, the party president. "They can't vote or drive a car or even buy cigarettes until they are 18."
The government, however, isn't backing down.
"We will do it. This is a matter of public health," Barria said.