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Chile apologizes for sterilizing a woman with HIV without her authorization

Picture of Tina Gutiérrez
Tina Gutiérrez

The Chilean government, in the voice of the current president, Gabriel Boric, offered a public apology to Francisca, a woman who at the age of 20 was sterilized without her consent in a public hospital, after prenatal tests detected that she had the HIV.

Before this act, the regional director of the Joint United Nations Program for HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in Latin America and the Caribbean, Luisa Cabal, showed the satisfaction of the organization in charge. “We welcome the acknowledgment of international responsibility in this emblematic case of human rights violations suffered by women living with HIV and their reproductive autonomy for a long time,” reported a statement from the international agency.

The history

Francisca, originally from a Chilean rural area, had her first pregnancy in 2002 and was diagnosed with HIV, so she followed the indicated treatment so that her baby was born free of the virus.

As part of the care protocol, women living with HIV undergo cesarean deliveries in order to minimize the risk of their babies acquiring the virus, and this was what they did to Francisca. Indeed, her son was born and remained HIV-free.

However, the day after the birth, Francisca discovered that the surgeon who operated on her had taken advantage of this same procedure to sterilize her, without having asked for her authorization.

Unfortunately, forced sterilization was, for many years, a frequent practice in women whose HIV was detected, since the medical staff considered that they should not “run the risk” of becoming pregnant, as this would put their children in danger of becoming pregnant contract the virus through the perinatal route.

However, starting in 1996, when highly active antiretroviral treatment was developed, capable of effectively controlling the virus, research began to show that if a pregnant woman takes treatment, the chances of her transmitting HIV to her baby are greatly reduced.

In any case, the decisions about their reproduction correspond only to the woman, so the medical staff does not have to decide when someone “should not reproduce”.

The case before the IACHR

According to what was reported by the UN news service, Francisca denounced the incident in Chile, but the national courts dismissed the case since the doctor who treated her stated that the young woman had given her verbal consent for sterilization, which Francisca flatly denies.

In 2009, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the civil organization Vivo Positivo took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Francisca’s was one more of the stories of Chilean women who constantly received pressure not to get pregnant or to undergo sterilization.

For example, another woman, identified as Daniela, recounted that when her son was born, the doctors told her that she could not hug or kiss him because he could transmit HIV (even though science has shown that neither kisses nor hugs are a way of virus transmission).

The international legal dispute took more than a decade, until the IACHR was able to sign a friendly settlement agreement with the Chilean State, where the government accepts its responsibility, commits to repair the violations of the human and reproductive rights of these women, and to take measures so that these types of acts are not repeated.

“I would love to have been me with my voice, my face and my body that after so many years of struggle was present to lead this act in my own name. However, revealing my identity would have closed endless doors for me,” said Francisca, who was unable to be present at the public apology act, in a text. “To date, people who carry HIV continue to be viewed with contempt as if it had been our decision to become infected. However, I want to believe with conviction that this will change.”

This is a case where misinformation, prejudice and stigma directly affected the rights of women with HIV. The best way to counteract these problems is to seek reliable and adequate information. At AHF Latin America and the Caribbean we work to eliminate stigma and discrimination against people with HIV. If you want to take a free HIV test or want to know more about the infection, come to our offices in your country, we are here to help you!