Peru Health Ministry stands by free distribution of morning after pill

Despite opposition from pro-life activists and the Church, Peru’s Health Ministry, or Minsa, will continue to distribute the “morning after pill,” also known as the post-coital pill, free of charge.

Minsa has already distributed 153,000 two-pill packages since 2005, and 60 percent of these were given to poor and rural women attended to in health centers and clinics.

“The pill is also distributed in cases of unprotected sex,” Lucy del Carpio, Coordinator of Minsa’s Sexual Health and Reproduction Office, told daily El Comercio last week.

Two months ago, Peru’s Supreme Court decreed that the morning after pill was not abortive, as it stops pregnancy rather than causes an abortion.

“I agree, it has clearly been demonstrated that the pill is not abortive,” said Women’s Affairs Minister Carmen Vildoso. “It corresponds to what must be: the right of women and families to have the children they want and can provide for, and it puts an end to a discrimination tied to income.”

“Poor women,” added Vildoso, “can’t easily buy this pill, so if the Health Ministry distributes the pill (free of charge), we can end this discrimination.”

Abortion — or anything coming close to it — is a touchy issue in Peru where more than two-thirds of the population is Catholic, and where the Church adamantly maintains that women’s sexuality should be limited to reproduction. Currently, abortion is only legal when a pregnancy endangers a woman’s life and when it is necessary to protect her health.

But, according to Peruvian women’s rights movements and Human Rights Watch, women face grave difficulties in accessing therapeutic abortion, as it is rarely available in public hospitals. So, the incidence of clandestine abortion in Peru is as high as, or higher, than the incidence in many countries where it is legal and safe, and is a significant public health issue.

And, obtaining the morning after pill — especially in poor and rural areas — can often be as challenging as gaining access to therapeutic abortion.

The morning after pill is a high dose of hormonal contraception.

Taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, it prevents a fertilized egg from embedding itself to the womb’s lining. Unlike the RU-486 abortion pill, it does not work if a woman is already pregnant.

However, the morning after pill is still opposed by critics, such as pro-life activist Carlos Polo, director of the Population Research Institute in Latin America, who object to any interference with a fertilized egg.

Polo has criticized del Carpio and the Health Ministry for not considering the pill an abortifacient, for distributing it free of charge, and for “praising” the Supreme Court’s ruling as beneficial to poor and marginalized women.

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