Brazil to subsidize contraception for poor

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil will subsidize birth control pills for the poor, Health Minister Jose Temporao said on Monday, a decision that may stoke a simmering conflict between the state and Catholic Church over contraception and abortion.

Birth control pills will be discounted up to 90 percent at a network of 3,500 government-authorized pharmacies across Brazil. That number will rise to 10,000 drugstores by the end of the year, Temporao said.

A pack of pills designed to last a month will cost the equivalent of 20 U.S. cents. The government hopes to boost the supply of pills to 50 million per year from the current 20 million.

It also wants more men to take advantage of the free vasectomies offered by the public health service.

Temporao said the measures were needed after the government failed to reduce newborn child and maternal deaths by 15 percent.

He also suggested the government should present a proposal on the legalization of abortion to Congress, despite the church’s opposition.

“This issue has to be inserted into the widest family planning policy. The National Congress will decide if there is going to be a change in the legislation. The government will get the issue rolling so that the women can decide,” he said.

Earlier this month during a visit to the world’s most populous Catholic country, Pope Benedict delivered a strong anti-abortion message and railed against premarital sex as local bishops criticized the government for the distribution of free condoms and other birth control policies.

Brazil’s government hands out millions of free condoms each year to help prevent the spread of AIDS under a program lauded by the United Nations. The Catholic Church tells young people they should practice abstinence -- a stance critics call dangerous and unrealistic.