Naomi Seiler


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.