Morning-after pill sparks controversy in Peru

A move by Peru’s health minister to allow free distribution of the morning-after pill has sparked protests in the Roman Catholic country where abortion is banned and unmarried woman have only been allowed contraception for 20 years.

Opponents called the decision by Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti a “shameful” step toward legalizing abortion and said it violated the constitution’s explicit defense of the life of the unborn child.

“As a doctor, as a minister and as a woman, there’s no way I’d accept anything that was an attack on life,” Mazzetti, a respected neurologist, told a news conference on Tuesday.

She said the pills, used for emergency contraception after unprotected sex, would be available in about three months.

A previous government tried to introduce the morning-after pill in 2001, but the issue got bogged down in legal wrangling. Mazzetti’s decision followed a Justice Ministry ruling the move did not contravene the constitution.

But Hector Chavez Chuchon, head of the Health Commission in Congress and himself a surgeon, slammed what he said was an anti-life policy and said he hoped Peru would never be in the “shameful position of wanting or having to legalize abortion.”

Chavez Chuchon has said he might consider legal action against the health minister, but indicated on Tuesday he wanted more information about the measure before taking any action.

Church leaders in Peru have also criticized the plan.

Activists say there are over 1,000 back-street abortions in Peru every day. The human rights group Flora Tristan put the total last year at 410,000. It estimates more than half of pregnancies in Peru each year are unwanted and that half of those end in abortion.

‘BID TO LEGALIZE ABORTION’

Chavez Chuchon said such abortion figures were exaggerated. Peru only permits abortion when the mother’s life is at risk.

“Where all this is heading is a bid to legalize abortion,” he told Reuters in his office, where he kept a Bible on his desk and quoted from a medical textbook to support his argument the morning-after pill caused abortions.

Newspaper vendor Angela Pumalloclla, 53, said she opposed the move, despite having had a back-street abortion as a young mother of two. “Sometimes I think, ‘How did I kill my child?”’ she said.

The contraceptive pill has been available in Peru since the 1970s, but until 1985 only married women could have it, with their husbands’ permission, according to Flora Tristan.

The morning-after pill is widely available in Latin America. In ultraconservative Chile, the government recently made it available free, but only for rape victims.

Jorge Avendano, a constitutional lawyer who headed the Justice Ministry panel, said it would have been unfair not to make the pill part of state health care in Peru.

The pill can be bought at pharmacies, on prescription, for about $7. “A woman with money can buy it, the poor can’t, so that’s discrimination on economic grounds,” Avendano said.

More than half of Peru’s population lives on $1 a day or less, and in rural areas poverty levels are even higher.

“I had eight children and I was able to support them, but if I had three today, they would die of hunger,” said Elio Ugaz, 63, selling shorts on a street corner in central Lima. “I think the pill could help (people) a lot.” (Additional reporting by Marco Aquino, Fiona Ortiz in Chile)

Provided by ArmMed Media
Revision date: June 20, 2011
Last revised: by David A. Scott, M.D.