Florencia Scocchera, a sassy 22-year-old waitress and trapeze artist, didn’t have time for a baby. So when the condom that she and her lover used broke, she quickly took the morning-after pill.
In Buenos Aires, public hospitals offer the emergency contraception for free, no questions asked. Argentine lawmakers are pushing to extend this service nationwide.
“I’d rather go through a bad patch now than have a baby and be in a bad way for the rest of my life,” said Scocchera, a pale, thin woman fond of piercings.
Despite stiff resistance from the Roman Catholic Church, governments are moving to make emergency contraception widely available in much of Latin America, which is home to half of the world’s Catholics.
The morning-after pill, which blocks the release or fertilization of an egg, may prevent pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of sex. Some research suggests it may also keep a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb.
The Catholic Church, which preaches abstinence before marriage and opposes contraception and abortion, considers the pill a chemically induced abortion.
The morning-after pill is gaining acceptance in Latin America as people increasingly ignore traditional church teachings on sexuality.
The Mexican government has mandated the pill be distributed at public hospitals, while in Peru it is offered for free. Municipal health services in Brazil dispense the morning-after pill nationwide, although clinics can opt not to do so.
Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet, raised hackles last year when her government required the pill be made available at no charge to girls as young as 14.
Chile’s move went far beyond measures in the United States, where after a 3-year fight, regulators in August approved the sale of emergency contraception without a doctor’s order, but only for women 18 and older.
Emergency contraceptives are available without a prescription in about 40 countries worldwide.
“This is part of a historic process in our region, a process of evolution in which reproductive rights are increasingly seen as people’s rights,” said Dr. Margarita Berkenwald, coordinator of Buenos Aires’ program for sexual and reproductive health.
MATTERS OF PRINCIPLE
The Argentine bill pending in Congress would require health care providers to offer the morning-after pill to women for free nationwide.
Juan Hector Sylvestre Begnis, who heads the lower house’s health committee, says the main purpose of the bill is to give poor women access to these contraceptives since the wealthy already buy them at pharmacies.
“This is for people who do not have money and go to public hospitals,” Sylvestre Begnis said, adding that free access to the morning-after pill could benefit about 200,000 Argentine women a year.
“If this pill were used properly, it would prevent many unwanted pregnancies without causing conflict over the polemical issue of abortion.”
Abortion is illegal in Argentina unless a woman’s life is in danger or if a mentally impaired woman is raped. Clandestine abortions kill about 1,300 women a year in Argentina and are the leading cause of maternal deaths, Sylvestre Begnis said.
Catholic leaders do not see emergency contraception as a benign alternative. Argentine bishops publicly urged Congress to scrap the bill, arguing the pill is “an assault on human life” and violates the country’s constitution.
The morning-after bill was easily approved by two congressional committees. Local media reported it would be passed by the end of 2006, but it wasn’t brought to a vote before Congress began a 2-month recess in December.
The bill’s sponsor, opposition lawmaker Alicia Tate, said ruling party legislators told her they didn’t want to further antagonize the Catholic Church after approving a string of sensitive laws, including one related to sex education and another requiring that hospitals provide free vasectomies and tubal ligations.
But Tate said ruling party lawmakers assured her the bill would be passed this year.
“Any church or religious group can tell its followers what they should and shouldn’t do, and those followers will accept that or not depending on their beliefs. But no creed should interfere in the passage of laws,” Tate said.