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Inter-American Court of Human Rights Hears Challenge to Costa Rica’s In-Vitro Fertilization Ban; Ruling Will Have Broad Consequences for Reproductive Rights Throughout Latin America

(PRESS RELEASE) In a case that will affect the ability of women and families throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to make their own decisions about their reproductive health and future, Costa Rica's longstanding ban on in-vitro fertilization (IVF)—which has prohibited hundreds of couples from building their families—will be considered this week by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights during a two-day public hearing.

Because the ruling of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights—the highest human rights court in Latin America—will be final and binding for all 25 countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, its ruling will have far-reaching consequences. A ruling to uphold Costa Rica's legal position that defines the right to life as beginning at the moment of conception would set a devastating precedent for the legal status of many reproductive health care services, giving countries the power to ban not only IVF, but also abortion in all cases, and potentially many forms of contraception.

"It is in the court's power to either strengthen and defend the fundamental human rights of women throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, or to deal them a devastating setback," said Lilian Sepúlveda, Director of the Global Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. "We call on the court to uphold its mission by making clear that all assaults on reproductive rights, including Costa Rica's in-vitro fertilization ban, are impermissible."

The decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is expected early next year.

In 2000, the Costa Rican Constitutional Chamber ruled that IVF was unconstitutional. As a result, 10 Costa Rican couples and a fertility clinic filed a lawsuit against the absolute ban before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2004. The Center for Reproductive Rights filed an amicus brief in the case, asserting that the ban conflicts with the country's obligation to protect and respect women's human rights. The Center also brought in national and international human rights organizations and experts to file additional amicus briefs for the case and has provided technical assistance in support of the case over the years.

"Governments have a fundamental responsibility to ensure every woman and man are guaranteed the right to make their own decisions about their reproductive health and future - and any failure to do so is a serious threat to human rights," said Lilian Sepúlveda. "Costa Rica is failing its citizens by prohibiting couples from exercising their right to decide when and how to build their own families."

In August 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a preliminary decision that found the IVF ban violated Costa Ricans' basic human rights. In response, the Costa Rican government drafted a revised law that would allow the procedure, but with such onerous requirements that women would be subjected to enormous economic, emotional, psychological, and health burdens.

Having ratified the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1986—considered to be an international bill of rights for women—Costa Rica agreed to halt discrimination with respect to women's access to a full range of essential health services, which includes family planning and prenatal care. Forbidding services such as fertility treatments is a deliberate attempt to deny women the full range of reproductive health services to which they are entitled.

"International human rights bodies have continually recognized that when a woman is denied her reproductive rights—including access to obstetric care, birth control, information on reproductive health, or safe abortion—she is denied the means to direct her own life, protect her health, and exercise her human rights," said Alejandra Cárdenas, legal advisor for Latin America and Caribbean at the Center. "Latin American governments need to stop establishing personhood policies that undermine women's reproductive health."

In Latin America, personhood laws have been responsible for extreme bans on 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. Up to half of the sexually active young women in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador have experienced challenges obtaining modern contraceptives. Access to emergency contraception can be a critical tool in preventing unwanted pregnancies—especially in countries where regular birth control can be difficult to obtain.

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. A recent study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute reinforced the fact that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion. According to the study, the 2008 abortion rate in Latin America was 32 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, while in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the rate is just 12 per 1,000.