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Inter Press Service
HEALTH-ARGENTINA: Divisive Birth Control Law on its Way in
Marcela Valente
April 19, 2001
BUENOS AIRES, Apr 19 (IPS) - The Argentine Congress is debating a controversial bill on reproductive health that would make birth control information available free of cost, even to minors, in an attempt to curb sexually transmitted diseases, back alley abortions and teen pregnancies.

The initiative was shelved several times since it was introduced in 1995, until lawmakers came up with a more moderate version that diminished the opposition of the Catholic Church and other sectors.

The bill that began to be discussed by the lower house of Congress Wednesday would create a National Programme on Sexual Health and Responsible Procreation, and pave the way for "non- abortive, reversible and temporary" birth-control methods to be made available free of charge at public and private health centres.

The Programme would also implement monitoring plans for early detection of diseases like breast cancer, cancer affecting the reproductive system, and AIDS.

The original version of the draft law triggered a loud controversy, and was strongly opposed by the Catholic Church due to the clause stipulating that birth control methods were to be made available free of charge, as well as advice on contraceptives, to minors without parental authorisation.

A similar outcry by Catholic church groups was sparked last year when the Buenos Aires city council adopted a statute permitting the prescription of intrauterine devices (IUDs) free of cost, as well as unrestricted access by minors to birth control information.

The Catholic Church is opposed to the use of the IUD, which it considers an "abortive" method of birth control, arguing that the device impedes the implantation of the embryo in the wall of the uterus.

However, the Argentine Society of Fertility and Sterility pointed out that the most recent studies indicate that the copper in the IUD affects the movement of sperm, thus preventing fertilisation of the egg.

But the bill under debate avoids mentioning specific contraceptive methods, and thus makes no reference to the IUD.

Meanwhile, lawmakers argue that failure to respect the right of minors to receive information on birth control without the presence or authorisation of their parents leads to a rise in teen pregnancies.

Lawmakers in the lower house of Congress have reached a compromise in the various positions assumed in the debate, which are based on individual convictions rather than party affiliation, to prevent yet another postponement of the discussion, and in order for the Chamber of Deputies to approve the bill without delay and send it on to the Senate.

"We reached a consensus by agreeing to trim the conflictive issues, stating in a concise formula that 'reversible, temporary and non-abortive methods' would be prescribed, but without mentioning which ones," Deputy Cristina Guevara, the chair of the Chamber of Deputies' Public Health Commission, told IPS.

The bill thus avoided making any reference to the controversial IUD or to tubal ligations or vasectomies, considered "irreversible" methods of birth control. Guevara said doctors would prescribe IUDs anyway in cases where the device was deemed the most suitable method, since the sale of the contraceptive is approved by the agency that authorises the commercialisation of pharmaceutical products. With respect to the religious beliefs of patients in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, doctors will converse with them as to the most suitable method, she explained.

Guevara added that she had proposed in the Public Health Commission that youngsters under 16 be "encouraged" to visit the doctor accompanied by a "father, mother or guardian" - a formula that could run up against resistance by lawmakers reluctant to make birth control information freely available to minors.

Although abortion is illegal in this Southern Cone country of 37 million, an estimated 500,000 are practiced annually. Most of the fatal victims of unsafe abortions are low-income women who cannot afford a safe procedure. Meanwhile, young people living in the greater Buenos Aires area are among those at highest risk of contracting AIDS, identified by a Health Ministry report as the primary cause of death among people aged 15 to 44. Moreover, the bill's sponsors point out that in the past 20 years, the proportion of mothers aged nine to 19 rose from 13.3 to 15.4 percent of the total number of women giving birth. Since the statute on sexual and reproductive health was approved in Buenos Aires nine months ago, the number of doctor's visits for exams aimed at prevention and early detection of breast and cervical cancer, and for birth control advice, climbed 20 percent in the city.

In addition, some 75,000 people, 80 percent of whom were women, and the great majority of whom were from low-income sectors, sought family planning advice in public health clinics in Buenos Aires over the past nine months.

Today, the capital has the lowest proportion of teenage mothers in the country. Official statistics indicate that 87 percent of teenage women between the ages of 15 and 19 use birth control, while the proportion of teenage mothers dropped from 15.4 to 6.4 percent of the total number of women giving birth.

Statutes similar to the one in effect in Buenos Aires and the bill under debate in Congress have already been adopted in several cities and provinces, including the city of Rosario in the province of Santa Fe, the provincial capital of Mendoza, and the provinces of Misiones, Neuqu�n, La Rioja, Chubut, R�o Negro and San Luis. However, parents have filed complaints in some municipalities. In Vicente L�pez, a town in the province of Buenos Aires, near the capital, the Women's Centre sponsored a new ordinance making birth control information available to the young. But the measure has been challenged in the courts by four lawsuits which argue that the new statute amounts to an attack on privacy. The number of teen pregnancies is directly correlated with a lack of information, sex education and economic resources among young women, Maria Luisa Storani, a sociologist and town councillor in San Fernando, also located in the province of Buenos Aires, told IPS.

Storani was the main sponsor of a new statute making it mandatory for health professionals to provide advice on contraceptive methods to any teenager who solicits such information.

But the ordinance, which was passed by a unanimous vote in 1995, has never been put into practice, due to obstacles raised by the national government.

"The executive branch has responded to our demands by arguing that it carries out prevention work by expanding the food aid allotments for poor mothers," said Storani.