Unspeakable Cruelty

The Costa Rican government ignored its laws and inflicted brutal suffering on a woman who had every right to a legal abortion.

Aurora was on the way to her friend’s house when the bleeding started. She was pregnant.

The visit with her friend was supposed to be celebratory, as she planned to announce that she and her husband would finally be starting the family they wanted.

Aurora, then 32, never took that short trip through her neighborhood in Costa Rica, though. Instead, she found herself on an altogether different path—thanks to the Costa Rican government ignoring its own laws and international human rights standards.

Costa Rica has a near absolute ban on abortion. Exceptions exist, in theory and on paper, specifically if a woman’s life or health is at risk because of a pregnancy. In Aurora’s case, though, doctors and health officials disregarded the law, and the Costa Rican government failed to protect her from the clear violations of her human rights that followed. This battle in pursuit of justice before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) wouldn’t be possible without Aurora’s determination to protect women from this ill treatment in the future.

The day she started bleeding, Aurora rushed to the hospital and underwent a battery of tests over a period of a week. Eventually, Aurora says that her doctor told her, “without any empathy, like he has no blood in his veins,” that the fetus would not survive.

The fetus suffered from Prune Belly syndrome, and doctors told her that the fetus would never survive a pregnancy. On September 4, 2012, Aurora asked for a therapeutic abortion. Her physical and mental health were already in steep decline, which gave Aurora every right to a legal abortion under Costa Rican law.

Doctors refused.

Not once, but again and again. For months.

She was forced to carry on as if nothing was out of the normal with her pregnancy. “To go to the maternity ward once a month, to monitor the fetal development, increased the pain and suffering that I went through each time,” she says.

In December she asked Costa Rica’s Supreme Court to intervene. It took 36 days for the court to respond, during which time Aurora went into early labor and had to undergo an emergency cesarean section. She ended up delivering a stillborn. Still, the country’s highest court refused to acknowledge that there was any threat to Aurora’s health.

In written testimony for her case, Aurora described the nightmare that ensued:

Every day brings up another memory from this ordeal. Merely passing by the entrance of the cemetery is sad, knowing that my baby’s gravestone is there. Looking at the scar on my abdomen every day, it’s painful because of what it signifies to me. Walking past the empty room in our house that was supposed to be his bedroom makes me question how am I supposed to live knowing the pain and tears I’ve shed, knowing that I’ll never get to see him grow up, never give him a hug or spoil him. Even though this is painful, the only thing I can do is to move forward and that’s what I’m trying to do day by day.

Unfortunately, Aurora’s story is not unique. In 2008, the Center filed another case against Costa Rica before the IACHR on behalf of a woman known in legal documents as A.N. Similar to Aurora, A.N. suffered from a fatal fetal abnormality, but was repeatedly denied a legal abortion. Today, she is still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic gastrointestinal problems as a result.

Aurora likely faces the same long struggle to secure justice, but she is resolute. She and her husband named their stillborn child Emmanuel, and it’s from him that they draw strength: “Emmanuel is the main reason, my motivation to keep moving forward,” she says, “because I don’t want anyone else to go through what we did.”

It’s time for the IACHR to step in, to stop the heartless treatment that Costa Rican women face from a government that gives more consideration to an ideological stance than the dignity and health of its people.

“My husband and I can never forget what happened to us,” says Aurora, “nor can we bear the thought of this happening to another family, sentenced to suffer the same way we did. That’s why we continue this legal battle which we hope will put an end to this abuse.”