Guatemala's New Law Overrides Church Objections ; Reproductive Health Policy Assures Funds for Contraceptives and Education

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In a family-planning clinic in downtown Guatemala City, Ana Coj awaits an injection she hopes will give her a radically different life from the one her mother has. With regular contraceptive injections, Ms. Coj says she plans to have just three children and space them two years apart. Her mother had eight.

"My mother gets sick a lot and has a lot of pain, and having so many children so close together is what has affected her health," says Coj, who at 18 already has a 10-month-old baby girl of her own. "I don't want that to happen to me."

In a nation with the highest fertility rate in Latin America and one of the lowest rates of contraceptive use, many here hope a new law will allow more women the opportunity to make their own choices about family planning. In the face of stern Catholic Church opposition, President Alvaro Arzu signed into law last week Guatemala's first official reproductive health policy.

The Social Development and Population Law, which covers a broad range of issues, will institutionalize the sporadic and largely underfunded reproductive health programs of the past.

"This law would make support of reproductive health programs a policy of the state, and, as such, one that would have to be respected and continued in future administrations," says Hector Colindres, who heads up the Health Ministry's reproductive health program, launched in January.

Mr. Colindres says the law will enable congress to assign funds specifically for the program, which currently subsists largely on ever-dwindling foreign aid.

The Catholic Church asked the president to veto the law. Similar initiatives in the past had been blocked by church opposition. "Our fear is that this law could be manipulated to promote abortions," says Nery Rodenas, the director of the local church's human rights office. The church said it will be watching carefully to see if that happens.

But supporters of the law, who point out that abortion is illegal in Guatemala, argue that this law will protect the right to life - the right to life of the nation's women, who have an average of five children.

"The fertility rate is a brutal attack on the health of women," says Telma Duarte executive director of the private Association for Family Well Being. Ms. Duarte points to United Nations' statistics showing that the maternal mortality rate in Guatemala is the fifth highest in Latin America. She adds that this statistic is widely recognized to be under-registered, according to some studies, by as much as 60 percent. …