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Politics and the morning after pill

In Chile, contraception has become one of the hottest issues in the looming presidential battle.

Activists take part in a rally outside the Chilean congress to support the distribution of free morning-after pills to teenagers aged 14 and above, in Valparaiso city, 75 miles northwest of Santiago, July 15, 2009. The words on their underwear read, "Our rights are not traded." The Chilean congress began a debate on a new bill authorizing the government to distribute free morning-after pills to teenagers aged 14 and above. (Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters)

SANTIAGO — Opposing sides in Chile's brewing political showdown over women's reproductive rights have fired their latest salvos, spurred by a decision to ban distribution of the morning after pill in the public health system.

The Comptroller General's decision in June was billed as the final word in a long judicial battle pitting the government — which had included the pill in its birth control guidelines — against conservative lawmakers, the Catholic Church and pro-life groups.

But women's rights groups, political leaders and NGOs from around Latin America have been joined in the debate by presidential hopefuls, making contraception a hot-button topic in Chile.

Immediately after the Comptroller General's decision was announced, more than 100 women took to the streets, shouting: “Citizens, on alert! The Comptroller is in your bed!”

Then, a public statement from nearly 120 women’s organizations, political leaders and NGOs from Chile and Latin America called the comptroller’s resolution “another example of the extreme social, moral and institutional conservatism in our country, which certainly doesn’t represent the views of the majority of the population."

More recently, candidates in Chile's presidential election, set for December, have made the issue one of rich versus poor in terms of access to contraception.

The modern chapter in the war here over the morning-after pill traces its roots to 2006, when the Health Ministry included the contraceptive — whose technical name is Levonorgestrel 0.75 — in its reproductive health guidelines, and was set to distribute it for free in the public health system.

The sale and distribution of the pill were approved by the Public Health Institute in 2001, when current President Michelle Bachelet was minister of health. It was already being sold in pharmacies with a prescription.

An indignant Bachelet, herself a doctor, introduced a bill in congress to guarantee “every person, regardless of their economic situation,” free access to the pill.

"The state isn't imposing anything on anyone," Bachelet said. "Each person may decide on her own, but the state must guarantee equal conditions of access to birth control methods."