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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.