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.
Weeks after Pope Benedict XVI used a five-day visit to the nation to denounce government-backed contraception efforts, Brazilian 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 on Monday.
Brazil already hands out free birth control pills at government-run pharmacies. But many poor people don't go to those pharmacies, so Silva's administration decided to offer the pills at drastically reduced prices at private drug stores, Health Minister Jose Gomes Temporao said.
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 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). They now retail for 5 reals to 50 reals.
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 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, although some worried whether Brasilia 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.
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