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Monday, July 22, 2024

Is Costa Rica violating human rights by banning in vitro fertilization?

From the print edition

By Matt Levin of The Tico Times and Oscar Núñez of AFP

Miguel Mejía faced the judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights Wednesday in San José. In a wheelchair, he pleaded for the court to reinstate the right for couples in Costa Rica to have children through in vitro fertilization. 

Mejía was paralyzed below the waist by an accident, preventing him from fathering children. His wife divorced him and had a child with her current husband. 

 “[I ask the court] not only for me, but also so that this doesn’t happen to future couples, what has happened here for the last decade,” Mejía said.

Mejía was one of the 18 people who filed a lawsuit against the state of Costa Rica for banning in vitro fertilization in 2000. Costa Rica remains the sole country in the Americas to maintain the ban. 

The lawsuit, filed at the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, resulted in Costa Rica receiving an ultimatum in 2010: Legalize the procedure or go to court and risk expensive financial penalties. 

Lawmakers unsuccessfully have attempted to pass legislation legalizing the practice on several occasions. Meanwhile, the human rights commission granted Costa Rica multiple extensions of a deadline to pass the law. But the assembly failed to garner enough votes. 

And so Costa Rica went on trial at the San José-based international court, established in 1979. At that time, the Costa Rican government made a push to place the court in its capital. Thirty-three years later, the country is a defendant for only the second time in the tribunal’s history. 

Plaintiffs, medical experts and lawyers for the state debated the issue for two days Wednesday and Thursday in front of a packed courthouse. 

The trial began Wednesday morning just after 9 a.m., after a magnitude-7.6 earthquake shook Costa Rica and temporarily forced everyone in the building to evacuate.

Mejía was first to testify. Dressed in a crisp, white buttoned-down shirt and sporting a cropped haircut, he spoke in accusatory tones against the Costa Rican government, describing the mental anguish and family problems the IVF ban had caused him. Mejía said he was unable to travel abroad for the treatment, which would have been affordable in Costa Rica.

The devoutly Catholic country’s Supreme Court banned IVF in 2000, stating that the technique violates the right to life.

In the decision to ban the practice, the Supreme Court found that “the embryo is a person from the moment of conception,” and that doctors only choose the most viable embryos in IVF procedures. The rest are frozen, discarded or donated, ending a life, the court said.

During the first part of this week’s hearing, U.S. endocrinologist Anthony Caruso, defended Costa Rica’s decision to drop IVF for ethical reasons. 

Fernando Zegers, a Chilean IVF expert, supported the technique for the plaintiffs.  Another plaintiff, Ileana Henchoz, took the stand after Mejía, speaking about her fertility problems. She broke down, telling the court she tried artificial insemination, a technique allowed by Costa Rica, “15 or 16 times,” but it never worked.

The great debate reached this point after the human rights commission ruled in 2010 that Costa Rica’s ban on IVF violates Articles 11, 17 and 24 of the American Human Rights Convention. The commission, in its report, decided that an absolute ban on IVF violated rights to privacy and to create a family, and is akin to denying someone medical treatment. In addition, the commission said, the prohibition “has a disproportionate impact on women.”

The testimony of Mejía and Henchoz “has made it completely clear that this ban has been a catastrophic impairment to families who have lived in Costa Rica the last 12 years,” said Boris Molina, an attorney representing the plaintiffs.

“The impact is undeniable, infertility has been a serious problem for many couples, to the point that many of them have ended up divorced. This is a human rights issue,” another attorney, Hubert May, told AFP in May.

Costa Rican Ombudswoman Ofelia Taitelbaum called the ban “illegal intervention” by the Costa Rican government in the issue of reproduction. Taitelbaum asked Costa Rica to adopt legislation regulating the procedure.

The government of President Laura Chinchilla presented to lawmakers last year a bill to regulate IVF, which failed to gather support under pressure from the Catholic Church and religious political parties.

Both sides of the case gave closing arguments Thursday morning, and the trial ended at noon.

The tribunal could order Costa Rica to lift the ban and pay compensation to victims if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs. 

A ruling is expected in early December.


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