In 1999, the President and the Ministry of Health of Costa Rica issued a
decree making contraceptive sterilization available upon demand, with
informed consent. This event represented a vantage point from which to
consider the evolution of sterilization law in Costa Rica, a project which I
had the opportunity to undertake at the Women, Justice, and Gender
Program of ILANUD, the United Nations Latin American Institute, in the
summer of 2000.
I learned at ILANUD that sterilization rights play a central role in
Costa Rican women's reproductive autonomy. There, as in most of the
world, women are sterilized at far greater rates than are men. In a 1997
study, for example, 20% of Costa Rican women relied on female
sterilization, compared to 1% who relied on their partner being sterilized.'
This wide and persistent disparity in sterilization rates means that even
facially neutral laws regarding sterilization automatically affect more
women than men. This greater reliance on female sterilization may stem
from ignorance about vasectomy and women's more frequent contact with
the healthcare system, but it also reflects the higher physical and
sociological burdens that unwanted pregnancies place on women. Such
burdens are particularly daunting in a country such as Costa Rica, where
abortion is not legally available in most cases. Within this context, the
option of sterilization rather than temporary forms of birth control is an
appealing one to many women who want reliable control over their
In this Note, I argue that both formal and informal laws regarding
sterilization have reflected and created gender status in Costa Rica. Formal
laws regulating access, though gender-neutral, have depended on societal
conceptions of gender roles, and in turn have shaped those roles. At the
same time, informal laws-the ways in which courts, agencies, service
providers and the public have interpreted and applied laws about
sterilization-have diverged sharply from the formal law but have just as
powerful an effect on people's lives. Throughout the evolution of
sterilization law in Costa Rica, the gendered effects of facially-neutral laws,
compounded by highly gendered application and interpretation of the
laws, have tightly controlled women's access to this form of contraception.
However, advocacy rooted in demands for women's rights and autonomy
has led to increased reproductive choice for women.
"Sterilization, Gender, and the Law in Costa Rica,"
Yale Human Rights and Development Journal: Vol. 4
, Article 4.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yhrdlj/vol4/iss1/4