Despite Country's Own Laws, Costa Rica Continues to Deny Women Legal Abortion

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Center for Reproductive Rights brings second case of human rights violations in Costa Rica to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
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(PRESS RELEASE) The Costa Rican government continues to violate women’s fundamental human rights and its own laws by denying pregnant women medically necessary abortion services, according to a new petition filed today by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Colectiva por el Derecho a Decidir before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The petition was filed on behalf of “Aurora,” (a pseudonym) a 32-year-old Costa Rican woman who—despite carrying a fetus with a fatal impairment and suffering from depression and physical pain— was denied the therapeutic abortion she requested. While abortion is illegal in Costa Rica in most circumstances, the country’s penal code allows for the procedure when a woman’s life or health is at risk.

Said Mónica Arango, regional director of the Latin America and the Caribbean program at the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“Denying any woman essential health care when her health is at risk is a clear and serious violation of her human rights.

“Costa Rica’s failure to guarantee critical care to a woman facing devastating pregnancy complications represents an act of callous cruelty in defiance of the country’s own laws and international standards of humane treatment.”

Aurora and her husband were excited to learn they were expecting in June 2012. However, weeks into the pregnancy Aurora began to feel sick. After being told by her doctors that the fetus had Prune Belly Syndrome, a severe impairment where the bladder and kidneys don’t fully develop leaving the fetus unviable, she requested a therapeutic abortion on September 4, 2012. Aurora’s doctors repeatedly denied her an abortion, claiming that they were only permitted to terminate her pregnancy if her life was in danger, even though Costa Rica permits abortion when a woman’s health is at risk and Aurora’s health was rapidly deteriorating.

After her lawyers exhausted all options, Aurora filed an “amparo” (protection request) before Costa Rica’s Supreme Court on December 17, 2012 asking that she be granted an early delivery as the progression of the pregnancy was aggravating her already deteriorated mental health. The court took 36 days to resolve her request—in the meantime she had an emergency caesarian on December 30, a stillborn—and in its judgment the court agreed with the hospital, claiming that when she filed the request there was no threat to her health.

Separately from “Aurora,” the Center for Reproductive Rights and Colectiva por el Derecho a Decidir filed a petition in 2008 before Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of “A.N.”, a 26 year-old Costa Rican who was told that she was carrying an unviable anencephalic fetus (without a brain) 6 weeks into her pregnancy. A.N. was repeatedly denied a legal abortion, suffered from severe depression as a result of making her continue with the pregnancy, and became suicidal. On June 7, 2007, she endured more than 7 hours of labor, resulting in a still born. Today, A.N. still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and from chronic gastrointestinal issues due to enduring the pregnancy. The Inter-American Commission has yet to consider A.N.’s petition.

Abortion is legal in Costa Rica only when the life and health of the pregnant woman is at risk, yet there is a lack of regulations to implement the abortion law. Thus, Costa Rican women are subject to the discretion of doctors to access legal abortion services, and often times doctors refuse to perform even legal abortion procedures for fear of prosecution. Currently, doctors can be sentenced to up to 10 years if found guilty of providing an abortion deemed illegal under Costa Rica’s penal code.   

A recent study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute reinforced the fact that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion. According to the study, the 2008 abortion rate in Latin America—a region where abortion is highly restricted in almost all countries—was 32 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, while in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the rate is just 12 per 1,000.