Costa Rica’s IVF Ban and the Future of Reproductive Rights in Latin America

Miguel and Ileana worked together for one year at a car dealership in the late 1980s. They fell for each other in 1989 and in love shortly thereafter. They married in 1992, Ileana's three-year-old little girl took Miguel's last name, and the Yamunis became a family.

When their efforts to have more children failed, Migeul and Ileana Yamuni tried fertility treatments, artificial insemination, and, beginning in 1999, the promising and relatively new technology of in vitro fertilization (IVF) made legal in Costa Rica only a few years earlier. Ileana had already initiated the long and expensive IVF process when, in 2000, the Constitutional Court of Costa Rica, under pressure from powerful elements within the Catholic Church, ruled the practice to be unconstitutional. The Central American country, known for the stability of its democracy and its respect for civil liberties, became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to ban IVF.

"Disappointment," said Miguel, when asked how the decision made him feel. "I just can't believe that in this kind of democracy we would have our government shut the door in our faces and just throw the key away."

For decades, Costa Rica has taken pride in its status as a stable democracy and champion of human rights in Latin America. And yet, since 2000, the Costa Rican ban on IVF has stood in clear violation of the human rights of the country's people. This week, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will hear challenges to the ban and its decision could affect in vitro policy throughout Latin America. At stake is nothing less than the future of reproductive rights in most of the Western Hemisphere.

With its 2000 judgment, the Constitutional Court denied biological children to the many Costa Rican couples hoping to start families of their own with the help of IVF. Nine couples, including the Yamunis, got together and sued the government in an effort to overturn the ban. The Center for Reproductive Rights joined the case shortly thereafter, filing a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the couples' case and lending their legal team technical advice on international human rights law. In 2010, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission found that the ban violated fundamental human rights to a family, to privacy, and to equality under the law.

Sadly, the legislature of Costa Rica has refused to comply with the Commission's ruling, and the case has made its way to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Unlike the Commission, judgments of the Court are legally binding for countries party to the American Convention on Human Rights—nearly every country in Latin America. Depending on the outcome of the case, the court could continue to make IVF out of reach for the vast majority of middle class Costa Ricans who can't afford extended international travel with expensive medical procedures; or it could allow couples to become parents while reaffirming the civil liberties for which the country is renowned.

And here's why the stakes extend even beyond IVF.

The ban is founded on the Costa Rican court's ruling that IVF violates the human rights of an embryo—this is a personhood movement in disguise, similar to efforts in the U.S. to define a fertilized egg as a person. Should the IACHR uphold the ban, a multitude of family planning technologies will be at risk, including IVF but also some of the safest and most effective methods of contraception, like IUDs. And a decision upholding the Costa Rican court's anti-family ruling would make it even more difficult to fight the draconian abortion bans in places like Chile and El Salvador, where women's lives are under very real threat every day as a result of one of the most cruel reproductive health policies in the world.

Faced with a ban against their right to have more children, the Yamunis saved up the money to travel to Spain for IVF treatments. When those were unsuccessful—IVF often takes multiple rounds—they tried again in Colombia. "Our biological window age-wise was closing," said Miguel.

Eventually it closed. The Yamuni family has moved on and stayed together, but not all the couples that joined them in the original lawsuit have managed the same in the face of a protracted legal battle and a state prohibition on their right to have biological children. Miguel says around half the couples from the original nine have divorced.

Over a decade after he and his wife entered a lawsuit to assert their right to a family, it's too late now for the Yamunis but Miguel is as determined as ever to fight for the human rights of Costa Ricans and across the region.

"My daughter might need (IVF) in the future," he said. "I want it to be available."