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Free birth control under fire in Chile

After years of social unrest, a recent mandate for free birth control promised young Chilean women reproductive control as well as a reduction in teen pregnancy, but the decision resulted in controversy and political maneuvering.

According to the Inter Press Service (IPS), the Chilean Ministry of Health passed legislation on Sept. 5 requiring that public clinics provide birth control to females over age 14, Chile’s age of sexual consent, without parental consent.

Statistics compiled by the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre showed that the number of births among mothers ages 15 to 19 rose from 24,000 in 1950, to 36,000 in 1970 and to 41,000 in 2000.
Despite the rise, the Chilean Health Ministry amended their rule on September 13, changing the age at which a girl can receive contraceptives without her parents’ permission to 18.

Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet, who has fought for universal birth control since she served as the minister of health in 2000, told IPS that the Ministry’s decision to raise the age constraint contradicts their mission to reduce teen childbearing.

“If little girls aged 12, 13, 14 and so on are getting pregnant, we all need to play appropriate roles in this matter,” she said in a statement she released on Sept. 6.

Freshwoman Chibo Shinagawa, a member of the reproductive rights group Choice USA, also disagreed with Chile’s decision to increase the amount of time a teen must rely on their parent’s decisions.

“It’s the teenager’s right, not the parent’s,” she said.

Shinagawa also said that she believes parental restriction is the first step towards decreasing the use of birth control and making it illegal.

According to IPS, opponents of free contraception in Chile said that a decrease in birth control use may be beneficial in light of the declining birthrate.

According to the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre, the average birth rate in Chili dropped from 5.44 children per family in 1960 to 2.67 in 1980 and then to an all-time low of 2.21 in 2000.

Other Chilean groups used the mandate as a spur to make birth control illegal. The Episcopal Conference of Chile, a Catholic organization of bishops, released a statement on Sept. 7, saying that the free morning after pills offered at clinics were abortions, which have been illegal in Chile since 1989.

Maya Ingram, public affairs manager for Planned Parenthood: Golden Gate, disagreed with the statement. She says the morning after pill, emergency contraception meant to be taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected intercourse to prevent pregnancy, is not an abortion because it “does not harm an existing pregnancy.”

The Episcopal Conference of Chile also released a statement called “¨Hacia donde camina Chile?” translated as “What Direction Is Chile Headed In?” The statement said that while the church supports women rights, the birth control mandate is unconstitutional since it allows federal law to control personal decisions.

The bishops said that by forgoing prescriptions and parental/spousal permission, the Ministry of Health forced decisions onto its constituency and did not allow the family, the core unit of society, to make moral judgments.

In a statement released on Sept. 6, President Bachelet denied allegations of complete government control.

“I am not going to impose my beliefs on anyone; I am offering alternatives,” she said.

She added that free birth control will give teens another option to having uninformed sex, which typically results in abortions or unwanted pregnancies.

Despite the controversy, Professor Deborah Santana, head of the Ethnic Studies department at Mills, praised Bachelet and the Chilean Ministry of Health’s development in female reproductive rights.

“Chile has long had a tradition of activism for human rights,” she said. “The right-wing military dictatorship under General Pinochet … reversed many of the gains that women had been steadily making. However, this latest decision … [is] evidence that Chile is once again leading the way towards full human rights for women.”

Junior Daisy Gonzales, who led a Mills protest in Juarez, Mexico to lessen the high rate of female murder victims, said that the issue is complicated since the pros and cons of receiving free birth control are different for each woman; however, she encourages Mills women to be involved with situation.

“Mills women should be aware of what happens to women everywhere,” Gonzales said.

“Not caring or being unwilling to learn is ignorant,” she added.