The Chilean state has apologised to a woman who was forcibly sterilised by doctors because she was HIV positive.
The woman, known only as Francisca and then 20, was diagnosed with HIV in March 2002 while pregnant with her first child. But while she was under anaesthesia during a Caesarean section, doctors at a public hospital performed a surgical sterilisation on the grounds that it would be irresponsible for an HIV-positive woman to have more children. When Francisca woke up after the operation, she was informed by a nurse that she had been sterilised without her consent.
“This act of reparation reaffirms the Chilean state’s commitment to attempting to repair the damage caused by the actions of its employees,” said Antonia Urrejola, Chile’s foreign affairs minister, who presented the formal apology alongside President Gabriel Boric on Thursday afternoon.
“It also underlines this administration’s commitment to making sure that women’s reproductive rights and sexual and reproductive autonomy are not affected in the way they were in [Francisca’s] case.”
In 2020, the UNAids programme estimated that there were 77,000 people living with HIV in Chile.
According to the organisation, women living with HIV are more likely to be victims of violence while undergoing reproductive health procedures.
Social and economic inequalities also exacerbate the risks for women. Francisca lived in a poor rural community and had never had access to sexual or reproductive education.
She had received no guidance as to the risks, advantages, and alternatives of sterilisation, despite a legal requirement for informed written consent from the patient.
In 2007, Francisca filed a criminal complaint against the doctor, who claimed to have obtained verbal consent, and her case was dismissed a year later when a court ruled that it did not constitute a crime.
Two years later, the case was brought to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Vivo Positivo, two organisations acting on Francisca’s behalf.
On 3 August 2021, the Chilean state signed a settlement accepting its responsibility.
The agreement made Chile responsible for compensating Francisca for the damages caused, providing a housing subsidy and healthcare for both her and her son, and committing to raise awareness of HIV and reproductive rights.
“I receive the apology offered to me by the Chilean state… [but] it must be clear that I was not the only one,” Francisca said at the time.
“I am happy to know that my case can serve to end stereotypes about people living with HIV, and to improve healthcare for other women.”
Reproductive rights have only recently liberalised in Chile.
Until 2017, abortion was criminalised in all circumstances, even when it was necessary to save the woman’s life. It is now legal in three cases – when the mother’s life is at risk, in the event of a nonviable pregnancy, or if the pregnancy resulted from a rape.
Chile’s progressive new government, led by President Boric, 36, has committed to strengthening sexual and reproductive rights.
The country has recently finalised a draft of a new constitution that could replace the 1980 document which was signed into law – although later reformed – under Gen Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990).
The draft will be put to a nationwide plebiscite on 4 September. It enshrines an individual’s autonomy over their body, the right to sexual education, and paves the way for access to abortion.