"We applaud the decision of the Chilean Health Ministry, because we believe it safeguards the rights of women and gives us a chance to interrupt the cycle of poverty," Ximena Rojas, assistant director of the non-governmental Centre for the Development of Women (DOMOS), remarked to IPS.
After President Michelle Bachelet, a pediatrician, took office in March, Domos asked the Health Ministry to expand the distribution of emergency contraception.
The measure, announced Saturday by Health Minister Soledad Barría during the fifth Chilean Congress of Pediatric and Adolescent Obstetrics and Gynecology, forms part of the new "national norms on fertility regulation" that will begin to be applied this month in all public hospitals and clinics around the country.
Any teenage girl over the age of 14 will now be able to directly ask her doctor for a prescription for birth control, without authorisation from her parents, and the contraceptives must be provided free of charge by the public health system.
The new decree complies with the sexual and reproductive rights approved at the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.
The most controversial aspect of the Health Ministry decree is that it not only covers traditional birth control methods, but also emergency contraception, which up to now was only available free of charge in cases of rape, although it was available by prescription in the country’s pharmacies.
Although it is popularly known as "the morning after pill", emergency contraception can be taken up to five days (120 hours) after unprotected intercourse. The pill works by providing high levels of synthetic hormones, which interfere with ovulation and change the lining of the uterus, significantly reducing the likelihood of pregnancy.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) clarifies that emergency contraception is "not effective once the process of implantation has begun, and will not cause abortion."
But archbishop of Santiago Francisco Javier Errázuriz said the decision by the centre-left government was a blow to marriage, the birth rate, and the Chilean family.
"I was hoping for good news for Chile at the beginning of the month of the fatherland," said Errázuriz, referring to the fact that on Sep. 18 and 19, Chile will celebrate 196 years of independence, and will pay homage to the army. "But it is not good news for a country to be obsessed with contraception."
Several mayors from right-wing opposition parties also rejected the government decree, and threatened not to respect it. (Municipal governments are in charge of administering the public health clinics.)