Andrea, a Costa Rican mother, stands in court before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., testifying against her country’s ban on in vitro fertilization (IVF). Sitting across the courtroom is Martha Garza, a U.S. anti-abortion doctor, arguing for protection of the embryos’ rights. The year is 2008, eight years after Costa Rica became the first country to ban IVF, and the ten couples who have sued their government for violating their right to have a family, have not lost strength or hope. Their story, leading up to that day in court, is told in Beautiful Sin, a new documentary by journalist Gabriela Quirós.
Quirós, who graduated from Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1999, took on a decade-long commitment, following three of the ten couples fighting the IVF ban in Costa Rica. She is a natural choice to tell the story: a Costa Rican native who started her career in journalism as a health reporter, she covered the birth of the first Costa Rican IVF baby, in 1995.
“I love covering health” Gabriela said in an email, “because it’s all about taking science into the real world where things are messy. Here you have medical treatment that’s designed to help couples have a child, and yet the government of a country is banning it with the argument that it puts fertilized eggs at risk. I wanted to understand how this argument, which was put forth by anti-abortion activists, had gained traction. My quest in the film was to figure out if my country could reconcile religious belief and scientific advancement.”
Because the fight is framed in terms of embryo rights, the reproductive rights of the parents become secondary—highlighting the extent to which the government and church in Costa Rica rely on each other to legitimize each other’s view. Quirós traces this interaction, as well as the backing of U.S. anti-abortion groups. But above all, she captures the emotional and psychological struggles of the couples caught in the middle of this ideological and political battle. As debate over reproductive rights rages hot, Quirós’ documentary uses Costa Rica as a lens to focus on the underlying issues, both political and intensely personal.
With no legal recourse in their own country, the couples took their fight to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights court, formed in 1979 to help protect the “fundamental rights of the individual” throughout the Americas. After eight years, the commission recommended that the ban be lifted. Two years later, in 2012, the court ruled that embryos in a petri dish do not have rights. Many hoped that the court’s ruling would lead to challenges against abortion bans, and thus greater reproductive freedom in other Latin American countries. Yet Costa Rica still has not fulfilled its obligation to protect and respect individuals’ reproductive rights. The Church’s ideas permeate society and public policy to the extent that not even the country’s new, more socially progressive president, Luis Guillermo Solís, who was elected in April 2014, has wanted to publicly put pressure on congress to legalize IVF. One of the women, María Calderón, tells the story of asking her priest’s advice as she was preparing for IVF, prior to the ban. He told her that the Catholic Church considers IVF akin to an abortion. To which Maria replied: “Well, if having a child is a sin, it must be a beautiful sin.”
Beautiful Sin, produced, directed and written by Gabriela Quirós, will be shown in the San Francisco Latino Film Festival on Saturday, September 20, at 3 p.m. in Opera Cinema Plaza.