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Costa Rica

Read this historical overview of Costa Rica's abortion legislation to get a better understanding of Jeannette's and Hania's stories.

Abortion in Costa Rica

Abortion is a crime in Costa Rica. The law only allows for therapeutic abortion, in the Costa Rican context meaning abortion when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger if she carries the pregnancy to term. If women fall pregnant due to rape and seek to have an abortion, they might be granted a judicial pardon. Article 121 of the Penal Code establishes that abortion is not punishable “if it has been done in order to avoid a danger to the life or health of the mother and this could not have been avoided by other means". However, there has been a disparity in the technicalities the article allows for and how it is exercised in reality. The practical application of the law has been that hospital centers have not allowed for abortion in any cases, due to the lack of clear instructions from the government, and because it might mean that they be penalized for performing the procedure. Some who have been forced to carry unfeasible pregnancies to term and have seen their children die just after birth, have already filed their demands with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Jeannette and Hania are emblematic cases of women who Costa Rica denied this procedure.

In December 2019, President Alvarado signed a technical norm that clarifies Article 121 and would allow for therapeutic abortions as the law intends. This is not an amendment to the law, but clearly defines when and how an abortion can be performed. With this change, women whose life or health is in danger can have an abortion performed up to 6 months of gestation at a hospital with the necessary medical professionals. For the therapeutic abortion not to be a crime, three criteria need to be met: there must be no other medical alternative, the pregnant woman must give her consent, and the woman must meet three medical professionals who evaluate the situation. Nevertheless, this seems to be an unfulfilled promise, attributed to the stronghold of the Catholic church and protests from the Archbishop and the religious parties in the legislative assembly, who argue that a clarification of the existing law will only pave the way for free abortion.

Historical overview

Abortion has been criminalized in Costa Rica since 1970, with the exception to save the pregnant woman’s life. As has been discussed earlier, there is a disparity between the actual law and its practical effects. The decree signed in 2019 is the first clarification of the law, almost 50 years after its inception.

Situation 2020

There were protests on both sides of the debate following President Alvarado’s decree in 2019. Polling around that time that a slight majority of the population were in favor of the technical clarification. As a political response, lawmakers of the religious majority drafted three new bills to further penalize women who seek abortion care. There are different sectors that focus on the issue of abortion: Mercedes Álvarez, from the Collective for the Right to Decide, defines the current Costa Rican context as "an exacerbation of conservatism and religious fundamentalisms". For Larissa Arroyo, director of the Asociación Ciudadana Acceder, the fight for legal abortion in Costa Rica is led by young people who are not “typical activists”. She maintains that “the technical norm and legal abortion are two different struggles but linked under the same umbrella of the right to decide. Access to unpunished abortion is the least that could be demanded in a country where this has been recognized as a right since the 1970 Penal Code”. In September 2020, a feminist collective called “Legal Abortion Costa Rica” marched the streets for legal and free abortion in Costa Rica, collecting signatures to present to the lawmakers.

Written by: Tilla Solli for The Women's Museum of Norway


Information collected by the Women's Museum in Costa Rica

In addition:
Reuters. (2019, December 13). Costa Rica’s president says therapeutic abortions will be allowed. Reuters. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-costa-rica-abortion-idUSKBN1YH0EK

The Costa Rica News. (2021, June 30). Costa Rican Feminist Organization Will Present a Bill to Legalize Free Abortion. The Costa Rica News. Retrieved January 7, 2021, from https://thecostaricanews.com/costa-rican-feminist-organization-will-present-a-bill-to-legalize-free-abortion/

Times, T. T. (2019, October 24). Therapeutic abortion regulation unleashes political storm in Costa Rica. The Tico Times. Retrieved January 6, 2021, from https://ticotimes.net/2019/10/24/therapeutic-abortion-regulation-unleashes-political-storm-in-costa-rica

World Health Organization. (2020, April 9). Global Abortion Policies Database, Country Profile: Costa Rica. Database. Accessed January 5, 2021, from https://abortion-policies.srhr.org/country/costa-rica/