San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica Seeks In Vitro Compromise

Two months after being told it was in violation of international human rights agreements it had signed by prohibiting in vitro fertilization (IVF), Costa Rica is in the process of lifting the longtime ban on the reproductive technique.

A bill is before legislators that would legalize “test tube babies” on the condition that embryos are not kept in storage and that none are wasted.

The proposal is Costa Rica’s attempt to find a compromise between the views of the Catholic Church, which is adamant that IVF not be practiced here, and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), which notified the country in August that its ban on IVF is a violation of international agreements (TT, Oct. 8).  

Enrique Castillo, Costa Rica’s ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), who was appointed to resolve the conflict, said, “This (bill) allows the practice of the technique in Costa Rica while also guaranteeing the protection of life and human dignity.”

Legislators have placed the bill on an accelerated track in order to have a response to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission within a reasonable time.

Costa Rica is one of the only countries in the world to prohibit IVF, whose pioneer, British scientist Robert Edwards,was recognized with a Nobel Prize this month for his role in helping bring four million children into the world.

Taking the lead from the Catholic Church, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the process violates life and human dignity, as many of the embryos used in the procedure are lost. In drafting their statement, judges adopted the rhetoric of the Catholic Church, saying children should be conceived naturally and that any manipulation of the process is morally unacceptable. 

In 2008, after all options had been exhausted within the Costa Rican judicial system, ten infertile couples brought the case before the Washington D. C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

“Nothing is worse than the inability to have a family,” said Andrea Bianchi, who was one of the mothers to testify. “People have sunk into depression, couples have divorced over this. This is the most infuriating thing because you have to wait for someone else to decide (your future).”

In August, the Commission – an entity of the Organization of American States – told Costa Rica that it must take steps to lift the ban, as its signature is on many of the international accords that back the practice.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, a U.S.-based lobbying group, said that Costa Rica’s ban on IVF “violates the human rights of Costa Rican citizens” and “opposes international guarantees protecting the right to health, intimacy and reproductive autonomy.”

Speaking before the Legislative Assembly on Wednesday, lawmaker Viviana Martín said, “Costa Rica is the only country in the world with a ban on in vitro.” She urged legislators to act quickly, so that “the country fulfills its responsibilities abroad.”

According to Castillo, more than half the legislators support the bill, but it must go through a commission and two votes on the floor of the Legislative Assembly before it can take effect.

The right-leaning Libertarian Movement Party said they supported lifting the ban on In Vitro, but adding that regulations to protect human life also must exist.

“Costa Rica needs to put itself in line with social reality,” said Danilo Cubero, head legislator for the Libertarian Movement. “Costa Rica subscribes to a number of international agreements. The country needs to comply with them.”

Unrealistic Restrictions

Dr. Ariel Pérez, who prepares women from Costa Rica to undergo IVF in foreign countries, called the bill illogical. He said that the IVF process necessitates the loss or storage of embryos because the success rate is only 30 percent. He also said limiting the number of embryos that can be used to only  those that are implanted makes the process uncertain and expensive, because if the first attempt fails, the woman must begin the entire process again. “These requirements are absolutely absurd for someone specializing in reproduction,” he said. “If [the Legislative Assembly] consulted a specialist, they would understand that these requirements can’t coexist.”

Pérez said the legislation was a poor attempt to satisfy both international entities and the Catholic Church, which considers the process a wrongful “manipulation of humanity” and a “sacrifice of human life to science” according to a statement released this week.

Gerardo Escalante, a specialist in IVF, told the daily La Nación that doctors should be allowed to store embryos.

“No center specializing in IVF discards embryos, they preserve them. First, so as not to destroy them and, second, to avoid having the women return to repeat the entire process of fertilization.”

By last count, 34 of the 57 legislators are in favor of the bill, even if it flies through congress, there’s still the risk it will be sent right back to the Constitutional Court, which ruled against the legality of the procedure a decade ago. Castillo acknowledged that the case could end up in court, but he’s confident that with the new stipulations, the bill will be ruled constitutional.

If not, the case moves before the Inter-American Human Rights Court.

According to Castillo, authorities are in the process of negotiating payment for the 10 couples who filed suit against Costa Rica in 2008. The IACHR had recommended indemnification as one of the steps Costa Rica should take to avoid a trial before the international rights court.

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