Incest case attests that, in Costa Rica, abortion is legal in name only

In recent years, Costa Rica has garnered attention for its stance on abortion. While the country’s laws appear to permit abortion in certain circumstances, such as when the life or health of the woman is at risk, the reality on the ground often tells a different story. This dissonance between law and practice was starkly highlighted in a recent case of incest, which serves as a poignant example of how, in Costa Rica, abortion may be legal in name only.

Costa Rica’s legal framework on abortion is outlined in Article 121 of its Penal Code. It permits abortion when the continuation of the pregnancy poses a risk to the life or physical or mental health of the woman and is not readily curable. This exception seemingly allows for abortion in cases of rape or incest where the woman’s mental health is at stake. However, the interpretation and application of this law are subject to various factors, including societal attitudes, religious beliefs, and medical practices.

In June 2023, a case emerged that brought these complexities to the forefront. A 14-year-old girl, identified as Maria, became pregnant as a result of incest perpetrated by her stepfather. Maria’s case garnered widespread attention both nationally and internationally, sparking debates about reproductive rights, access to healthcare, and the enforcement of existing laws.

In theory, Maria should have been able to access a legal abortion under Article 121. The psychological trauma of incest, coupled with the risks associated with underage pregnancy, would seemingly meet the criteria for a lawful termination. However, the reality was far more complicated. Despite the legal framework ostensibly supporting her right to choose, Maria faced numerous obstacles in obtaining the care she needed.

One major barrier was the reluctance of healthcare providers to perform abortions, even in cases where it was legally permissible. Many doctors and medical professionals in Costa Rica cite conscientious objection based on personal or religious beliefs. This conscientious objection clause allows healthcare providers to refuse to perform abortions without facing legal repercussions. Consequently, Maria struggled to find a medical facility willing to provide her with the necessary care.

Additionally, societal stigma surrounding both abortion and incest further compounded Maria’s plight. Costa Rica, like many countries, grapples with deep-rooted cultural taboos and conservative attitudes toward sexuality and reproductive rights. Victims of incest often face blame, shame, and ostracization, further isolating them from the support they need. In Maria’s case, the social stigma surrounding incest added another layer of complexity to her already challenging circumstances.

Moreover, legal ambiguities and bureaucratic hurdles complicated Maria’s access to abortion services. While the law theoretically allows for abortion in cases of incest, the lack of clear guidelines and standardized procedures can result in delays and confusion. In Maria’s case, navigating the legal and administrative requirements proved to be an arduous task, further exacerbating her distress and uncertainty.

As Maria’s case garnered attention both domestically and internationally, it reignited debates about the need for comprehensive reform of Costa Rica’s abortion laws. Advocates argued that the existing legal framework, while technically permitting abortion in certain circumstances, failed to adequately protect women and girls like Maria. They called for clearer guidelines, increased access to reproductive healthcare services, and greater accountability for healthcare providers who refuse to perform abortions on grounds of conscientious objection.

Opponents of abortion reform, however, remained steadfast in their opposition, citing religious beliefs, moral convictions, and concerns about the sanctity of life. They argued that expanding access to abortion would undermine traditional values and erode the protection of unborn life. This ideological divide underscored the broader cultural and political tensions surrounding reproductive rights in Costa Rica.

In response to Maria’s case and the broader discourse it engendered, some lawmakers proposed legislative reforms aimed at clarifying and expanding access to abortion services. These proposals ranged from amendments to the Penal Code to the establishment of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programs. However, progress toward meaningful reform remained slow and contentious, reflecting the deeply polarized nature of the issue.

Ultimately, Maria’s story serves as a poignant reminder of the stark realities faced by women and girls in Costa Rica when it comes to accessing abortion services. Despite legal provisions ostensibly granting them the right to choose, numerous barriers—ranging from societal stigma to institutional resistance—often prevent them from exercising this fundamental right. Addressing these barriers requires not only legal reform but also broader societal shifts in attitudes toward sexuality, reproductive rights, and gender equality.

In conclusion, the case of Maria highlights the dissonance between abortion law and practice in Costa Rica. While the country’s legal framework technically permits abortion in cases of incest, the reality on the ground is far more complex. Deep-seated societal stigma, religious beliefs, bureaucratic hurdles, and institutional resistance all contribute to the denial of access to abortion services for women and girls like Maria. Meaningful reform will require not only legislative changes but also a shift in cultural norms and attitudes toward reproductive rights. Only then can Costa Rica truly ensure that abortion is not just legal in name only, but a tangible reality for those who need it most.