Court challenge halts Chile's progressive Plan B plans

So close, yet so far -- President Bachelet's decision to make emergency contraception available to all is temporarily stymied by a Santiago appeals court.

Published September 14, 2006 8:00PM (EDT)

Oh, no. Just last week, we were celebrating the fact that the parallel universe of Chile had made contraception, including emergency contraception, available free of charge to all women and girls 14 and over. Sadly, it appears that the United States and Chile occupy the same universe after all: An appeals court in Santiago has "issued a temporary injunction on the government's plan," the Kaiser Network (as well as some great Broadsheet readers) informed us today. The injunction will last "until lawsuits challenging the plan are resolved" -- not a terribly promising forecast. And the substance of these legal challenges will be grimly familiar to anyone who has been following the issue stateside: A small band of parents and two conservative mayors charge that the E.C.-for-everyone plan infringes on parents' rights because it doesn't require that teens seeking emergency contraception have parental authorization.

Chilean Health Minister Soledad Barria refuted that suggestion quite sensibly on Wednesday, in an interview with the country's National Television. "We never have excluded parents," she said, but she added, "Adolescents, the same as adults, require confidentiality. How many adults would want sexuality issues aired to their closest relatives?"

Barria also noted that the injunction doesn't just block teens' free access to E.C. -- it also puts E.C. out of the reach of low-income women: "This is a problem of fairness. If you go to the pharmacy and buy contraceptives, no one asks how old you are [or] if you have authorization from parents. But if you go to a clinic that's going to provide it free, it turns out there are all types of problems." As Chilean President Michelle Bachelet explained this week, equal access to care was a primary reason for the new E.C. policy: "Any person with a doctor's prescription can buy [E.C.], because it's been legalized for sale, but there are people with fewer resources who can't buy it, and so we have opted to provide it at doctors' offices as needed," she said. Given that abortion is illegal in Chile -- there are no exceptions -- even a temporary injunction is likely to have permanent consequences for some women.

It's worth noting, as the Christian Science Monitor did this week, that the age of criminal responsibility and sexual consent in Chile has recently been lowered to 14. The Monitor also observed that 28 percent of teenage girls have "initiated sexual activity by age 14," according to the country's National Institute for Youth. What's more, Bachelet has said that almost 14 percent of Chilean women are mothers by the age of 14. And according to Lidia Casas, a university professor and reproductive rights advocate in Santiago, public health clinics have been giving out free contraception to girls 15 and over since 1993. With context like this, opposing teens' free access to E.C. seems wrongheaded.

Nevertheless, heavy hitters like Chile's Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches are expected to maintain their opposition, and the country's powerful Christian Democratic Party has also taken a stance against the plan. Still, as one Broadsheet reader pointed out, a spokesperson for the Chilean Association of Municipalities has said that 80 percent of the country's mayors are in favor of Bachelet's plan. May the cool heads prevail! We'll keep you posted as the challenge plays out.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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