Last month, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a final ruling in favor of the right to access in vitro fertilization (IVF) in Costa Rica. This is a win for women and Catholics and a blow to the bishops and conservatives who want to deny individuals the right to decide whether and when to have children. As the highest human rights court in the Americas, the court’s binding decision has ramifications for the 25 countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights. This includes many where the Catholic hierarchy has an often overwhelming influence on civil law. Today’s decision rectified a situation where, despite having ratified numerous treaties guaranteeing women’s rights, Costa Rica declared IVF unconstitutional in the year 2000.
In Costa Rica, a democratic country where three out of four people claim Catholicism as their faith, the church has had a profound effect on laws and policies involving many aspects of sexuality and reproduction. Church leaders have notably been active in opposing the easing of Costa Rica’s absolute prohibition of in vitro fertilization.
However, the teachings of the Catholic church leave room for women to follow their own consciences regarding fertility treatments. The hierarchy has presented an erroneous picture of IVF as somehow anti-Catholic, when in reality, many Catholics use IVF and other assisted reproductive health technologies to help them have children. The institutional church may turn its back on those struggling with infertility, but it is in keeping with the Catholic social justice tradition to make IVF available to all, not just those who can afford to travel outside the country at great expense.
A survey commissioned by the newspaper La Nación in 2012 found that 55 percent of the Costa Rican population, the majority of which is Catholic, supports legislation allowing IVF. Catholics support IVF because of their faith, not in spite of it. We celebrate parenthood as a generous desire to share the gift of life with a new generation.
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In 2011, Costa Rica’s bishops complained that a government commission studying the IVF law “has not considered our participation necessary.” The truth is that the Constitution of 1949 guarantees freedom of religion—just not the freedom of religious leaders to steer the political process against the will of the people. Catholics can and do embrace IVF as part of comprehensive reproductive health care for a pluralistic society.
The ruling is a step forward for Costa Rica’s public health, and will give more women more choices for their families.
Catholics for Choice submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Inter-American Court in this case.