Artavia Murillo (“In Vitro Fertilization”) v. Costa Rica

In 2000, Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (“Constitutional Chamber”) issued a ruling prohibiting in-vitro fertilization (“IVF”), holding that human life begins at fertilization and thus all fertilized embryos are entitled to fundamental rights, including the right to life and to human dignity. The Court also held that fertilized embryos cannot be treated like objects, used for research, be subjected to a selection process, frozen, or exposed to a disproportionately high risk of death.  

On January 19, 2001, nine couples filed a lawsuit before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) challenging Costa Rica’s total prohibition of IVF. They argued that the prohibition was a violation of a number of human rights protected in the American Convention on Human Rights (“Convention”). In August 2010, the Commission decided that the IVF ban was a violation of the rights to life, personal identity, and individual autonomy of the people who want to use this technology in order to have biological children. The Commission further found that Costa Rica violated the rights to be free from arbitrary interference with one’s private life, to create a family, and to equality.  

Due to Costa Rica’s failure to comply with its decision, the Commission submitted the case to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (“Court”) on July 29, 2011.

The Court’s ground-breaking holding in this case demonstrates a turning point in the acknowledgment and protection of reproductive rights in the Latin America. This was the first case where the Court recognized reproductive rights as human rights incorporated within the rights to privacy, of the family, liberty, and integrity.  The Court’s determination that the ban on IVF indirectly discriminates against several groups marked a pivotal moment in reproductive rights jurisprudence because it effectively connects the provision of reproductive health services with the fundamental human rights of equality and non-discrimination.  

This decision also marked the first time the Court ruled on the scope of the Convention’s controversial Article 4.1 right to life provision. This decision effectively ended arguments that the American Convention afforded an absolute right to life prior to birth. In addition to recognizing that “conception” referred to implantation, not fertilization, the Court made clear that this protection gradually increases as the embryo develops. Importantly, the Court also made clear that prenatal protections must also be proportionate in how they affect individuals’ exercise of their human rights, and take into account any disproportionate impacts on specific populations, including on women.  

The Court also stated firmly that under the Convention an embryo is not a person. This decision is a landmark step towards the realization of reproductive rights, as Article 4.1 has commonly been invoked in order to justify limitations on and violations of these rights, including in relation to access to certain forms of contraception and safe and legal abortion.