At a committee meeting held at UN headquarters in New York this week, Costa Rica’s Minister on the Condition of Women, Esemeralda Britton Gonzalez, attacked the role of the Catholic Church in Costa Rican society, and promised the UN committee that the Costa Rican government was seeking to eliminate the influence of the Church in its country. Speaking to the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Gonzalez blamed the "wide opposition of the Church that would not allow us to continue our work" on adolescent reproductive health programs, and also blamed "the huge influence of the Catholic Church" on the issue of abortion, saying that many medical professionals would otherwise seek to increase adolescent girls’ access to the procedure.
The CEDAW Committee exists to assess member states’ compliance to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Committee has the sole authority to interpret the controversial women’s rights document and to judge the actions of nations that have ratified it. It has become commonplace for the Committee to challenge predominantly Catholic countries to prove that they are taking active measures against Catholic influence, and the Committee’s examination of Costa Rica followed this form, with one Committee member asking the Costa Rican representative "Which legislative and government measures have been considered to eliminate the influence of the Church on the State."
What was novel, and what took UN observers by surprise, was the Costa Rican minister’s enthusiastic and explicit responses to such questions. Gonzalez asserted that, although the Catholic Church is the established religion of Costa Rica, the government has slashed its financial support for the Church. According to Gonzalez, "This data suggests that it could be the beginning of a process of separation between the State and the Catholic Church." She also emphasized that the Church has lost its privileged tax status, and identified Church groups that were particularly problematic for the advance of women’s reproductive rights, including the influential lay movement Opus Dei.
The official report submitted by Costa Rica was deeply critical of the Church. The report cites, specifically, Church opposition to a youth sexuality program "starting from the premise that boys and girls are entitled to sexuality." According to the report, "The programme encountered"fierce opposition"from the Episcopal Conference".This process revealed the intolerance that persists towards the topic and shows how difficult it still is to speak publicly about it. It also confirms the power of the Catholic Church and the pressure it still exerts over issues that are vital for the population and which concern the right to education for life."
Alexandra Loría, a member of the Costa Rican group Association for the Defense of Life blamed Minister Gonzalez for the Costa Rican statements, saying, "She does not respect our country, our laws or the way our people think. She should be dismissed."