President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced a new program Monday to sharply decrease unwanted pregnancies in Latin America’s largest nation by subsidizing birth control pills.
Less than a month after Pope Benedict XVI criticized government-backed birth control measures during a visit to Brazil, Mr. Silva said the plan will give poor Brazilians “the same right that the wealthy have to plan the number of children they want.”
Brazil already hands out free condoms and birth control pills at government-run pharmacies across Latin America’s largest nation.
But many poor people in the nation of 190 million don’t go to those pharmacies, so the government decided to offer the pills at significantly reduced prices at 3,500 private drug stores, said Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao.
The number of drug stores offering the subsidized pills should rise to 10,000 by the end of this year, Temporao said. When the $51 million (U.S.) program is fully under way, the government will be handing out 50 million packages of birth control pills each year.
Each government-subsidized package — with enough pills to last a month — will cost 20 cents. They now retail for $2.56 to $25.60.
The Health Ministry said it does not plan to subsidize condoms at private drug stores, but Brazil already has an anti-AIDS program that provides millions of free condoms annually, often just before the debauchery seen during the nation’s Carnival celebrations.
Mr. Temporao also announced the government also plans to increase the number of free vasectomies performed at state hospitals.
During his visit to Brazil May 9-13, the Pope repeatedly railed against legalized contraception as a threat to “the future of the peoples” of Latin America.
But advocates for women’s rights applauded Mr. Silva’s decision, saying it was long overdue in the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, though some worried whether the government would follow through.
“Too often, Brazil makes really wonderful laws that remain on paper because there is no political will,” said Mary Luci Faria, who co-ordinates city government programs for women in Sao Paulo.
Ms. Faria said the program could reduce the 800,000 illegal abortions that Brazilian women have each year.
About 4,000 women die from the back-office procedures annually, making it the fourth leading cause of maternal death in Brazil after hypertension, hemorrhages and infections.
The Pope also harshly criticized abortion during his visit, just weeks after Mexico City lawmakers legalized it.
While abortion is illegal in most situations in Brazil, Mr. Silva said shortly before the Pope’s visit that it should be considered as a public health issue, and Mr. Temporao wants a national referendum on the issue.
Polls show Brazilians overwhelmingly oppose changing abortion laws, but advocates for women attending Mr. Silva’s speech on birth control said they were glad the president took a stand on the theme with the pope. While Mr. Silva says he personally opposes abortion, he favours a national debate on the issue.
“The Church has no right to interfere with what a woman decides to do with her body or her health,” said Dr. Eleonora Menicucci, a professor of preventive medicine at the Federal University of Sao Paulo’s medical school. Globe & Mail