SANTIAGO, Chile - When Melanie Riffo discovered she was pregnant last September, she knew that something didn’t add up.
The 20-year-old from the southern Chilean city of Chillán had been careful. She took the birth control pills she was prescribed and given by her local public health clinic, always followed her nurse’s instructions, and she even took extra precautions. But she still got pregnant.
"I never considered becoming a mother at this age. I wanted to go to school, which is already expensive here - and now it’ll be even harder for me to afford,” she said.
Riffo’s unexpected pregnancy could have been the fault of botched contraceptive pills called Anulette. She’d kept her packet, and saw that her exact batch, number B20035, had been recalled three months after she had received them.
According to the recall information, placebo pills were mistakenly swapped with active ones - an error that has now been blamed for more than 100 unwanted pregnancies. The government offered no further information on how to help those already affected.
Silesia, the laboratory that manufactures Anulette, also issued a warning about the batch, yet failed to give an apology or offer help for women experiencing unwanted pregnancies. During a television interview on national news, the laboratory said that the packaging issue existed in only 12 of the recalled products, but they have not been able to inspect all the boxes. They also insisted that the state should have checked the pills, before handing them out in clinics.
“Women were trusting the pills they were given by state-run clinics. The fault is not only with the laboratory but also with the government. They are both responsible,” said Anita Peña Saavedra, director of Chilean reproductive rights organization Corporacion Miles. The group is taking legal action on behalf of all of the women who became pregnant while taking Anulette when the defective pills were circulated.
It’s estimated that nearly 267,000 defective boxes, corresponding to two faulty batches of Anulette, were distributed across 26 public health clinics in the country before the recall was issued. Riffo’s experience is not unique - Miles currently counts at least 112 women in Chile whom they believe are pregnant because of the faulty pills.
Activists say the cases highlight the need for greater reproductive rights in Chile, where abortion is illegal except in cases of rape, if the mother’s life is at risk, or the fetus cannot survive outside the womb.
“This is a very emblematic case to show why having [three legal exceptions] is just not enough and why it is always important to have access to free and legal abortion,” said Paula Avila, a human rights lawyer and head of the U.S.-based Women’s Equality Center.
“[These women] don't have any other avenue except going to a clandestine service and putting their lives at risk. It is a denial of basic rights.”
Riffo looked into terminating her pregnancy via a clandestine abortion. “I really didn’t want to have the baby,” she said. But she didn’t want to take the risk. “I thought it was better to move forward and see what happens.” She is still coping with anxiety and bouts of depression brought about by the dramatic change in her life.
VICE World News spoke to six women who suspect their pregnancies were the result of Anulette’s faulty contraceptive pills. They are between the ages of 20 and 37. Most obtained the pills through the public health system, which 80 percent of women in Chile rely on.
Barbara Vasquéz, 20, from Chillán, is expecting a baby in March. She said that she saw the government’s alert by chance through a screenshot forwarded to her on WhatsApp. No one reached out to her, despite being given the faulty Anulette batch at her local clinic. She said she investigated online, but could not find much official information from the Health Ministry. “Everything was about coronavirus,” she said.
She lives with her sister and mother and said she will raise the baby alone while trying to continue her studies. She feels that people in her town are judging her. “They didn't pay attention when I said I was prescribed defective pills. They think it’s my fault.”
Her maternity nurse told her that she’d attended to many other women who were getting pregnant under the same circumstances, said Vasquéz.
Yasna, 31, a history teacher from Valdivia, was angry when she found out she was pregnant “in the middle of a pandemic, with so much uncertainty in the world.” She described a “chaos” in her mind as she considered undergoing a clandestine abortion. “Our case was not recognized under the three legal circumstances.”
Yasna, who did not want her last name published, said she is now happy with her pregnancy, but not about the circumstances in which it came about. “Neither the laboratory nor the state has given a sufficient answer,” she said. “I don't know if there could be a solution to the pregnancies that are taking place, beyond perhaps some compensation. A son or daughter is there for life.”
Chile’s Health Minister Enrique Paris blamed the laboratory for the error during an interview on national news, stating that pregnancies proven to be the fault of the pills must be compensated. So far, the Health Ministry has only offered psychological assistance to some affected women.
The Health Ministry did not reply to a VICE World News request for further comment.
Saavedra, with the Miles Corporation, said a “chain of mistakes” from the laboratory to the government’s quality control, was to blame. The organization has launched a lawsuit against the laboratory and the government, seeking compensation and appropriate responses beyond the “silence” they have received from both parties.
The Chilean government told Miles’ legal team that it launched a probe after receiving the first complaint about batch B20034A in August 2020. It then received three more complaints about B20035 weeks later. Both batches were officially recalled by September 4, 2020.
However, the faulty batches may extend to pills beyond the Anulette products distributed to public health clinics. Miles’ investigation found that the government received 27 complaints involving 13 additional batches of Anulette, potentially affecting thousands more women. A separate laboratory withdrew three batches of their contraceptive pill, Minigest, on October 7, 2019, after identifying faults in the pill composition, prompting a second government alert.
“You can’t jump from 97-99 percent birth control effectiveness to saying the pill doesn’t work at all. It wasn't just one instance of a woman saying ‘I got pregnant’,” said Avila, at the Women’s Equality Center. “It's that there was a systematic lack of enforcement by the authorities.”
Marlisett Rain, 37, always purchased her Anulette pills from the same pharmacy in Santiago.
“It wasn’t in our plans to have more children,” she said, explaining that she had been going through a temporary separation in the months prior to when she and her husband learned they were going to have their third child.
“At the beginning, I felt it was an obligation. Because I wasn’t prepared and I’m not in a good financial position, but I had to accept it,” said Rain, who gave birth to a baby boy in January.
She didn’t save her box of Anulette, so she can’t say for sure they were faulty. But after hearing of other unwanted pregnancy cases, she suspects she had bought a defective batch.
Soledad Castillo, a 35-year-old social worker in Santiago, believes there are more faulty Anulette series. Her nurse advised her to stop taking the pills because they were “turning out bad,” but by then she was already pregnant with a second child she had not planned for.
“Hopefully someone can hear us,” added Castillo. “Hopefully we aren’t women who are silenced, our mouths covered with whatever stupidity the government says. We need support.”
Riffo is six and a half months pregnant with her first child. While supported at home by her boyfriend and her mother, she is still struggling with her new reality. “I have had to abandon things that I used to do, and not because of something that I planned, but something that I’m still not sure that I want, but I have to accept,” she said.
“I haven’t been able to feel [joy] like other pregnant women feel.”