S...PAULO, Brazil — For years, Brazil's government has gotten into the Carnival spirit by handing out tens of millions of free...

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil — 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 just $2.40.

Weeks after Pope Benedict XVI used a five-day visit to Brazil to denounce government-backed contraception efforts, President Luiz Inácio 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,” Lula told about 150 doctors and women’s rights advocates Monday.

Brazil already hands out free birth-control pills at government-run pharmacies. But many poor people in Latin America’s largest country don’t go to those pharmacies, so Lula’s administration decided to offer the pills at drastically reduced prices at private drugstores, said Health Minister José Gomes Temporão.

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 $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 20 cents. They now retail for $2.56 to $25.60.

The Health Ministry said it does not plan to subsidize condoms at drugstores, but Brazil already distributes 254 million free condoms a year, many as part of an anti-AIDS program, with a special push just before the nation’s Carnival celebrations.

Temporão 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 Lula’s decision, saying it was long overdue in Brazil, although some worried whether the government would follow through.

Mary Luci Faria, who coordinates women’s programs in São Paulo, said the program could reduce the 800,000 illegal abortions that Brazilian women have each year. About 4,000 women die from the procedures annually, making it the fourth-leading cause of maternal death in Brazil after hypertension, hemorrhages and infections.

Benedict also harshly criticized abortion during his visit, just weeks after Mexico City lawmakers legalized it. While abortion is illegal in most situations in Brazil, Lula said shortly before the pope’s visit that it should be considered as a public-health issue, and Temporão wants a national referendum on the issue.

Brazilian Archbishop Orani João Tempesta suggested the government could do more to improve health by spending the money to alleviate long waiting periods at Brazilian hospitals for people needing lifesaving operations.