Journey to Justice

Fifteen years after being denied an abortion, a Peruvian woman is paid reparations by the government in a landmark human rights victory.

Last week one of our clients, a woman known as K.L., traveled from Madrid, where she lives, back to her home country of Peru for a momentous event—the hard-won end of a long journey.

When the journey began, K.L. was 17 years old and three months pregnant. After going to the hospital in Lima one day in late June 2001 for a check-up and ultrasound, she received devastating news. The fetus she was carrying was anencephalic—incapable of fully developing a brain, with absolutely no chance of survival—and her doctor recommended that she have an abortion. Continuing the pregnancy would be both physically and mentally dangerous.

But this was only the beginning of K.L.’s ordeal.

She decided to go ahead and end the pregnancy. But when K.L. and her mother returned to the hospital, she was informed that she would not be permitted to have an abortion. Even though Peru's laws allow abortion in cases when a woman's health is endangered, hospital officials illegally denied K.L.'s request and her rights.

K.L. was forced not only to carry the pregnancy to term, but also to breastfeed the baby for the four days she survived after birth.

She described the remainder of her mandatory pregnancy as a cruel “extended funeral” for her daughter, made even more distressing by seeing the baby’s marked deformities and knowing that she had no life expectancy.

After giving birth in January 2002, K.L. sank into a deep depression from which she would not emerge for years.

Several months later, the Center for Reproductive Rights—in partnership with the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women's Rights and the Counseling Center for the Defense of Women's Rights—learned of K.L.’s situation and worked to bring her case before the UN Human Rights Committee. The Center and our partners filed K.L.’s case against the Peruvian government in November 2002.

Almost exactly three years later, the Human Rights Committee issued a historic ruling: Denying K.L. an abortion was a violation of international human rights law, and constituted cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The Committee ordered Peru to provide K.L. an effective remedy—including compensation—and to take steps to avoid similar situations in the future. The decision marked the first time that an international human rights body held a government accountable for failing to ensure access to legal abortion services.  

“It was a huge step toward justice for K.L. and a landmark decision for the UN,” says Lilian Sepúlveda, who directs the Center’s global legal program and was one of the attorneys who originally brought K.L. v. Peru to the UN.  “But as groundbreaking as this win was for establishing legal precedent, successes like these do not stand on their own. In order to make a difference for our client and women facing similar situations, concrete implementation of the decision is absolutely essential.”

In a stance that is not unusual for states facing rebuke by human rights bodies, Peru was initially resistant to the UN decision and refused to comply with the ruling. But the Center and our partners were undeterred. For years, we continued to advocate on K.L.’s behalf, repeatedly meeting with Peruvian officials, working with local organizations, and continuing to bring the issue to the attention of international human rights monitors.

During that period, the Center also filed—and won—another case against Peru, this time before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on behalf of L.C., another teenager who was denied abortion services when her health was endangered.

After almost a decade of persistent efforts, we made critical headway in 2014 when Peru adopted national guidelines for providing safe abortion services to give clarity to physicians and patients.

Following up on this progress, Center attorneys and our partners met with officials in Peru earlier this year to negotiate a reparations agreement for K.L.

“In seeing justice delivered in K.L.’s case—watching it go from A to Z—we are part of an inspiring historic moment,” says Sepúlveda. “We are witnessing the results of advocates’ dedicated perseverance and the power of the UN and other international bodies to ensure our basic human rights to dignity, health, and freedom from ill-treatment.”

K.L. is scheduled to receive reparations following a ceremony in Lima this month. While it is our hope that she can now put this ordeal behind her, the Center is determined to continue the quest—building on this victory and others to carve a path toward justice for all women across the world.

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