BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Chile’s president publicly apologized to a woman who was sterilized without her consent at a public hospital two decades ago because she was HIV-positive, ending a years-long legal process that included taking her case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in Washington.
“It hurts to think that the state that I have the honor of representing today is responsible for these cases,” President Gabriel Boric said Thursday.
The woman has been identified only as Francisca, which is not her real name. She was 20 years old when she became pregnant in 2002 and found out during a routine checkup that she was HIV-positive.
Francisca says she was repeatedly criticized by healthcare workers for getting pregnant while living with HIV and, while she underwent a cesarean, doctors sterilized her without her consent, which the new mother only learned about when she came out of anesthesia.
Francisca, whose son was born HIV-negative, insists she never agreed to the sterilization procedure claiming her dream had long been to have several children.
Despite her claims, courts in Chile dismissed her case as the doctor said she obtained verbal consent for the procedure, which Francisca denies.
“I receive the apology that the state is offering as a commitment with myself and all the people who went through a similar story,” Francisca said in a written statement. “It must be clear that I was not the only one and we still face discrimination in the healthcare system.”
The apology, which was part of the negotiated settlement that Chile sealed at the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in August, is not just about Francisca.
“This was not an isolated case,” said Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Center for Reproductive Rights, one of two NGOs that took Francisca’s case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. “It was a systematic practice in the healthcare system.”
In a 2009 report, the Center for Reproductive Rights said many women living with HIV in Chile faced discrimination from healthcare workers, who often pushed them not to get pregnant. Many also said they were pressured to undergo a sterilization procedure.
“The forced sterilization of women living with HIV in Chile will no longer be able to be denied,” said Sara Araya Leyton, the head of Vivo Positivo, the other NGO that took Francisca’s case to Washington.
Francisca was not at the ceremony on Thursday, saying in a letter that was read aloud that she would suffer discrimination if she publicly revealed her identity, but officials said she was watching.
“This is a day of mixed feelings for Francisca,” Martínez said. “She feels honored and happy but it’s also difficult for her to understand that so much time had to pass for this to happen.”
Boric addressed Francisca directly during his speech.
“I want to start by apologizing to Francisca, as I understand you’re on the other side of the camera, for the clear violation of your rights, and also for the denial of justice and for all the time you had to wait for this,” Boric said.
Chile recognized its responsibility for the violation of human rights before the Inter American Human Rights Commission in 2017 and agreed to pursue a negotiated settlement.
In addition to economic compensation for Francisca, Chile also committed to carry out a series of actions, including education campaigns with healthcare workers, to ensure “that the case of Francisca will never again be repeated,” Boric said.
AP journalist Eva Vergara contributed reporting from Santiago, Chile.