Inter-American Court of Human Rights Declares Costa Rica’s Ban on In-Vitro Fertilization a Human Rights Violation

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(PRESS RELEASE) Costa Rica’s longstanding ban on in-vitro fertilization—which has barred countless individuals from building their families for almost 12 years—is set to come to an end. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled today that Costa Rica’s ban of the reproductive health technology violated the right to privacy, the right to liberty, the right to personal integrity, and the right to form a family, as recognized under international law. The court also found that obstructing access to reproductive health services violated the right to be free from discrimination.
With this decision, the court has reaffirmed that all individuals, not only in Costa Rica but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, cannot be barred from having access to in vitro fertilization. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is the highest human rights court in the Americas and the ruling in this case is final and binding for all 22 countries that have accepted the jurisdiction of the court.
“We commend the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for upholding the right of individuals to make their own decisions about their reproductive health and future,”said Lilian Sepúlveda, Director of the Global Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “With this decision, the court sends the strong message that assaults on reproductive rights will not be tolerated.”
In its judgment, the court concluded that embryos cannot be given absolute rights and that, while embryos are protected, such protection must be gradual and incremental following their development. The Court also stressed that this protection must always be proportional to the protection of human rights.
The court ordered Costa Rica to legalize in-vitro fertilization within the next 6 months, to regulate all aspects of in-vitro fertilization to ensure implementation and provide free mental health services for the victims in this case. It also ordered the State to implement continuation education courses and training on reproductive rights for judicial officials throughout the country.
In 2000, the Costa Rican Constitutional Chamber ruled that in-vitro fertilization was unconstitutional. Interpreting the right to life provision in Costa Rica’s constitution as beginning at the moment of conception, it granted personhood—full legal rights and protections—to fertilized eggs. Given that not all fertilized eggs fully develop, those eggs are never transferred. The chamber understood the act as discarding human beings, and it banned the reproductive health technology. As a result, 10 Costa Rican couples and a fertility clinic filed a petition against the absolute ban before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2004.
The Center for Reproductive Rights has been involved in this case from the start. The Center filed two amicus briefs in support of the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and another two before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, asserting that the ban conflicts with the country’s obligation to protect and respect women’s human rights. In the latter stages of the case, the Center also worked closely with one of the petitioners’ lawyers—providing key ongoing technical assistance—and led international support efforts by encouraging national and international human rights organizations and experts to file additional amicus briefs for the case.
In Latin America, court decisions granting personhood to fertilized eggs have been responsible for extreme restrictions on access to emergency contraception, which have been widely recognized by international and regional human rights bodies, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as violations of a woman’s ability to exercise her fundamental rights. Personhood laws have also been responsible in countries like Chile, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, for absolute bans on abortion, even when a woman’s health or life is at risk.
“The Inter-American Court of Human Rights reaffirmed today that every person has a right to choose whether to have children or not, as well as the number and spacing of their offspring, and that States must not ever interfere with that right,” said Alejandra Cárdenas, Legal Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Center for Reproductive Rights.