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Brazil to subsidize birth control pills, despite criticism from the pope

For years, Brazil's government has gotten into the Carnival spirit by handing out tens of millions of free condoms on the streets.

Now the world's largest Roman Catholic country is helping to make birth control pills more affordable, subsidizing a program that will allow people to buy a year's supply for about US$2.40 (euro1.78).

Weeks after Pope Benedict XVI used a five-day visit to Brazil to denounce government-backed contraception efforts, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced the new program to give masses of poor Brazilians access to birth control pills that better-off citizens take for granted.

"It gives them the same right that the wealthy have to plan the number of children they want," Silva told about 150 doctors and women's rights advocates Monday.

Brazil already hands out free birth control pills at government-run pharmacies. But many poor people in Latin America's largest country don't go to those pharmacies, so Silva's administration decided to offer the pills at drastically reduced prices at private drug stores, said Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao.

Under the new program, anyone can buy the pills by simply showing a government-issued identification card that almost all Brazilians carry. The number of outlets selling the pills will start at 3,500 and is expected to rise to 10,000 by the end of this year.

When the US$51 million (euro37.9 million) program is fully under way, the government expects to 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 0.40 Brazilian reals (US$0.20, euroO.15). They now retail for 5 reals (US$2.56, euro1.90) to 50 reals (US$25.60, euro19.03).

The Health Ministry said it does not plan to subsidize condoms at private drug stores, but Brazil already distributes 254 million free condoms a year, many as part of an anti-AIDS program, with a special push just before the nation's Carnival celebrations.

Temporao also said the government plans to increase the number of free vasectomies performed at state hospitals.

During his visit to Brazil earlier this month, Benedict repeatedly railed against legalized contraception as a threat to "the future of the peoples" of Latin America.

But advocates for women's rights applauded Silva's decision, saying it was long overdue in the Brazil, although 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 coordinates women's programs in Sao Paulo.

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.

Benedict also harshly criticized abortion during his visit, just weeks after Mexico City lawmakers legalized it. While abortion is illegal in most situations in Brazil, Silva said shortly before the pope's visit that it should be considered as a public health issue, and Temporao wants a national referendum on the issue.

Polls show Brazilians overwhelmingly oppose changing abortion laws, but women's advocates attending Silva's speech Monday said they were glad the president took a stand on the theme with the pope. While Silva says he personally opposes abortion, he favors a national debate on it.

"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.

Brazilian Archbishop Orani Joao Tempesta suggested the government could do more to improve health by spending the same amount of money to alleviate long waiting periods at Brazilian hospitals for people needing lifesaving operations.

"The church favors responsible parenthood, with parents using natural (birth control) methods," said Tempesta, who oversees the church in the northeastern state of Para.

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