San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Sexual Rights Groups Cheer Bill

A bill that would transform sexual and reproductive rights is headed for the legislative docket.

Presented last week by a liberal legislator, it would make emergency contraception available, allow female condoms to be widely and freely distributed, and fight discrimination toward gays and lesbians.

While the bill is highly controversial and unlikely to be passed soon, if at all, proponents say it will open a dialogue about issues long seen as taboo.

“This is a very daring law,” said Anna Arroba, director of the Association of Women in Health. “There is a very conservative side in this country.”

The bill, presented last week by Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) legislator Ana Elena Chacón, would add a new chapter to a 1973 health law. Among its most noteworthy proposals, the bill would require the Health Ministry to authorize the emergency contraceptive, or the morning-after pill, now unavailable here. The pill would be offered free to women of childbearing age covered under the state’s Social Security System (Caja).

The bill would also require the Caja to offer the female condom, now available at high prices at only a few private pharmacies,  said Julia de la O Murillo, a legislative adviserto Chacón. The Caja plans to buy a limited number of female condoms starting in 2008 to distribute to sex workers and women infected with HIV, said Jose Miguel Rojas, the Caja’s development director for health services.

Chacón’s bill would make them available to all women.

That excites Francisco Madrigal, who has lobbied for the condom as director of the Central American Center for Research and Human Rights, saying it is a human rights issue.

Madrigal also cheered a clause in the bill that would extend hospital visitation rights.

He said gay people and lesbians have had trouble visiting their sick partners because they are not family members. Chacón’s bill would codify that right.

The bill also enshrines a women’s right to an abortion if her health or life is in danger. The Penal Code already gives immunity to doctors who perform such abortions, but does not establish them as a woman’s right. Arroba said Chacón was bold even to mention abortion in the bill, given its taboo nature.

The bill, which has not yet been assigned to a legislative committee for debate, is sure to face strong opposition. In a sign of legislators’ attitudes toward homosexuality, a committee unanimously approved a bill this fall that would prohibit gays from adopting children.

Guyón Massey from the National Restoration Party (PRN), who proposed that bill, said he would fight to keep Chacón’s proposal from moving forward. The morning after pill is abortive, he said, and condoms encourage promiscuity among teenagers.

“This culture of death that they want to impose…must be rejected outright,” said Massey, an evangelical pastor.

Among its less controversial clauses, Chacón’s bill requires the state to inform people about how to prevent, diagnose and treat cervical, breast and prostate cancer.

In addition to practical reforms, the bill intends to produce an eventual change in attitude, Murillo said. It reads: “Everyone has the right to fully enjoy his or her sexual and reproductive health…without discrimination.”

“Here the key word is enjoy,” Murillo said.


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