Chile's National Association of Pharmaceutical Chains (Anacaf) met with Chile's Health Ministry (Minsal) this week to discuss fines imposed on those pharmacies that have refused to dispense emergency contraceptives to customers.
The meeting came in response to the Health Ministry's announcement, made last week that the three largest pharmaceutical chains in Chile (Salcobrand, Farmacias Ahumada, and Cruz Verde) will be fined 34 million pesos (US$69,000) each for not stocking or selling the "morning after" pill. Last week Salcobrand stores displayed signs that read "selling the morning after pill goes against our conscience and violates our rights and freedom as a company." Emergency contraceptives, more commonly known as the morning after pill or Plan B, are taken orally up to 75 hours after unprotected sexual intercourse to prevent fertilization or implantation. Although abortion is illegal in Chile, President Michelle Bachelet's government has taken the position that the morning after pill prevents conception and therefore is not abortive in nature. Bachelet has instructed public health authorities to work aggressively to assure the pill's availability not just at community health centers, but at all major pharmacies, insisting this is the only way to ensure the pill's availability to young women from all social strata. In March, a group of conservative deputies challenged a presidential decree allowing the distribution of the morning-after pill to girls as young as 14. The Chilean government's most recent decision to fine "non-complying" pharmacies has sparked a public debate, pitting public health needs against the right of private businesses to conduct their business as they see fit. Pope Benedict XVI recently proclaimed at the 25th International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists that "pharmacists should have the recognized right to object to an immoral choice based on their conscience alone," and his words were widely echoed in Chile's conservative media this week. "Pharmacists should not only be able to advise patients on the appropriate use of the medication, but also the ethical implications of the use of certain medications," said the Pope. "How can they alleviate their consciences knowing that they have averted the implantation of an embryo?" Chilean Health Minister Soledad Barria said she respected the Pope's statements, but added, "We are worried that people won't have the opportunity of choosing the best option for their own conscience. In Chile no one is obligated to buy the pill. It is a matter of what takes precedence - the conscience of the consumer or the conscience of the pharmacy owners." "The rules were laid out a long time ago, well before I became health minister," said Barria. "The pill has already been established as indispensable for public health, and the pharmacies, like all private entities, are obligated to fulfill their promise to the public. The pharmacies are private entities, but the state has the capacity to regulate the actions of these private entities. The pharmacies are required to dispense the medicines outlined in the contract. ÃÂ¢€Ã‚Â¦ Many chains are arguing that the fines are going to ruin them. This is not true – a 30 million peso fine (US$60,000) will not break a company that makes US$12 million a year." Political leaders have also joined the debate. "These sorts of fines are typical of totalitarian governments, like that of Chavez. We are confronting a 'chavista-bacheletista' (Chavez-Bacheletist) government," said conservative Independent Democratic Union Party (UDI) Senator Jovino Novoa. Secretary-general of the liberal Party for Democracy (PPD) Pepe Auth said, "I find it very strange that the political parties that are normally strongly in favor of the free market are resorting to an ideological slant, which prohibits the people from choosing a product based on their free will." The Santiago Times