Costa Rica violates women’s human rights in therapeutic abortion cases, say complaints at Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

February 20, 2015

The deadline has expired for Costa Rica to respond to a claim at the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for allegedly denying a therapeutic abortion to a woman in 2007, according to the pro-choice group “Colectiva por el Derecho a Decidir.” But Costa Rican officials say the deadline is in April.

In a statement the group said the deadline ended Thursday, but Costa Rica’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Alejandro Solano Ortiz told The Tico Times in an email that “the deadline is not today [Thursday]. The official deadline to respond to the Inter-American Commision is in April.”

Solano said the government had formed a commission with representatives from the Social Security System, or Caja, the National Women’s Institute, the Health Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to study this and a second case.

“We currently are in the process of gathering all technical information to submit our response to the IACHR according to Costa Rica’s legislation,” he added.

The first case involves a woman identified by the pseudonym “Ana,” who was 26 when she requested the termination of her pregnancy after medical evaluations concluded her 6-week-old fetus had severe malformations that made it impossible to survive outside the uterus. Caja doctors allegedly told her she must continue the pregnancy to term, denying her a therapeutic abortion by claiming her health and life were not endangered, the complaint states.

In her fifth month of pregnancy, Ana was hospitalized due to severe deterioration of her physical and mental health. She was fully aware that her pregnancy would end in stillbirth. At the time a psychiatrist concluded the pregnancy exposed Ana to a “severe risk of death by suicide,” and recommended Caja officials terminate the pregnancy.

But Caja officials rejected the request again, arguing that her life was not at risk. Ana then filed a complaint with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, where justices rejected her petition by citing Caja evaluations.

According to the complaint at the IACHR, Ana was forced to continue her pregnancy to term and was in labor for seven hours. Doctors concluded her son had died in utero as a direct result of severe malformation.

Colectiva members joined Ana in her repeated requests to the Caja for the termination of her pregnancy. Following the failed delivery, the group assisted her in filing a complaint at the IACHR in 2008 with support from the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, according to Colectiva member Larissa Arroyo Navarrete.

“As a result of her experience Ana still struggles with severe depression and suffers anxiety attacks, chronic diarrhea and social inhibition,” the complaint states.

Arroyo said the petition does not seek changes to current laws or the drafting of new ones.

“We are only asking for a correct interpretation of Article 121 of Costa Rica’s Penal Code,” she said.

That article states that it is legal to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy in cases where a woman’s health or life is at risk.

“Currently an administrative procedure or a protocol on how to interpret this provision of the law does not exist, therefore access to this procedure is not clearly defined by law; for that reason doctors in most cases refuse to perform a therapeutic abortion,” she said.

The other case currently under study at the IACHR involves a woman known as “Aurora” who filed her complaint in 2011.

Aurora, 32 at the time, repeatedly requested a therapeutic abortion because medical tests showed her fetus had no chance of survival. She was denied the procedure by doctors who claimed it would be illegal because Aurora’s life was not at risk.

The deceased baby was born with his heart, liver and intestines exposed. He also had severe scoliosis, cysts, short ribs and no legs.

During her pregnancy Aurora experienced tachycardia, severe pain and emotional distress caused by the fetus’ condition.

Both complaints at the IACHR highlight a lack of expedited access in Costa Rica for therapeutic abortions, a violation of human rights, Arroyo said.

She added that the complaints “seek to expose the government’s systematic failures in providing women with a protocol to handle therapeutic abortion requests when the health and lives of women are endangered.”

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