Chile is a Roman Catholic nation with some of the toughest abortion laws in the world. All types of abortion are illegal, even in cases of rape. Despite this, Chile's minister of health, Maria Soledad Barria, has announced that the emergency contraceptive known as the morning-after pill is now available for all women over 14 years of age, even if they do not have the permission of their parents. This has sparked a nationwide controversy.
The minister of health and Chile's president, Michelle Bachelet, are now defending their decision in the face of fierce opposition. They say that Chilean teenagers have 40,000 unwanted babies every year and that 13 percent of all 14-year-olds are already having sex. The president stresses that it is important to provide free morning-after pills to this age group to prevent more unwanted pregnancies because abortion is not an option in Chile.
But, her critics disagree. Conservative politicians accuse the president, a single mother of three, of promoting premature sexual relations. Some local mayors have refused to distribute the morning-after pill in their communities. Church leaders describe the pill as being no better than an abortion. And even members of her own government have come out against her.
The minister of health, Maria Soledad Barria, agrees there is a sharp difference of opinion.
"This government is a coalition government," she said. "So, there is not just one point of view on this. So, some people are for the morning after pill, and others are not." She says, "I think it should be available for everyone, and those who do not want to take it, do not have to take it."
Relations between the government and the Roman Catholic Church are at an all-time low. Catholic leaders have accused the president of being totalitarian.
Paula Schimt works for an anti-abortion organization in Chile. She says the government did not consult with the church or its coalition partners before taking its decision on the morning-after pill.
"More than totalitarian, I think that they [the Catholic church] meant that it was anti-democratic, to take the morning-after pill [decision] as a public policy, without consulting everybody," said Paula Schimt. "It wasn't only the church, the Christian democrats, also within the coalition, were not asked to participate in the debate."
Recent public opinion polls indicate a majority of Chile's population are in favor of the morning after pill, as well as changing the country's abortion laws.