Andrea Bianchi and her husband Alberto Moreno, and their children Camila and Alejandro, are one of the three families the documentary Beautiful follows for a decade. Bianchi and Moreno were one of several couples who took the Costa Rican government before an international human rights court to fight that country’s ban on in vitro fertilization (IVF), a fertility treatment in which doctors create embryos in the lab. Costa Rica is the only country in the world that has outlawed IVF. Photo courtesy of Azul Films
Andrea Bianchi, her husband Alberto Moreno, and their children, Camila and Alejandro, are one of the three families the documentary Beautiful Sin follows for a decade. Photo: courtesy Azul Films

Gabriela Quirós, a Berkeley documentary filmmaker, spent 12 years making Beautiful Sin, which will air on KQED TV, Sunday Sept. 13 at 6 p.m. The film tells a surprising Latin American reproductive rights story, one with resonance for the United States.

In 2000, anti-abortion activists, with the help of the Catholic Church and a U.S. group, won a legal case that banned in-vitro fertilization (IVF)  in Costa Rica and gave the embryo legal rights. Beautiful Sin tells a cautionary tale about what can happen when a religious ideology such as the “personhood of the embryo” becomes law by following the decade-long story of three couples struggling with infertility. The couples take the Costa Rican government before an international human-rights court to demand the right to use IVF. Costa Rica is the only country in the world that has outlawed the fertility treatment, in which doctors create embryos in the lab.

Berkeleyside caught up with Quirós to ask her about the film.

What drew you to this story of the only worldwide ban on in vitro fertilization?

Gabriela Quirós. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez.
Gabriela Quirós. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez

In 1995, I was a print reporter in Costa Rica and I covered the birth of the first baby conceived in the country through IVF. It was a big, noisy, joyous media event. My documentary, Beautiful Sin, opens with the baby’s father carrying him down a hospital hallway, as photographers take pictures and members of the press coo at the little boy. Fifteen IVF babies were born in Costa Rica from 1995 to 2000, when the country’s Supreme Court banned the treatment. By then I was living in the Bay Area. I wanted to understand why the country had banned the treatment.

I thought the Catholic Church wanted women to have children. Why is it opposed to IVF? Is this limited to clerics in Costa Rica?

The Catholic Church does want women to have babies, just not through IVF. The Church believes that embryos are human beings with rights. It opposes IVF, among other reasons, because during the course of treatment leftover embryos may be cryopreserved or disposed of. In Costa Rica, cryopreservation and embryo disposal were never allowed. But the Costa Rican Church still opposed IVF, arguing that if the doctors placed several embryos in a woman’s body and only one grew into a baby, they had caused the demise of the other embryos. So, in Costa Rica the Church took its defense of the embryo one step further. The doctors performing IVF countered saying that the embryos that didn’t grow into a baby once inside the woman’s body didn’t do so probably because they had defective genes. They said it was natural selection at work.

The Costa Rican Supreme Court ruled that embryos have constitutional rights. What are the implications of that decision? Are there implications for the U.S.? 

In Costa Rica, as in most of Latin America, abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances. The Supreme Court’s decision to give the embryo constitutional rights strengthened the country’s ban on abortion.

There aren’t implications of this decision here in the U.S. But there is much in the film that will resonate with viewers. The film brings up fundamental questions. Can science and religion co-exist? Who has the right to form a family? Who gets access to medical treatment? Even though IVF is legal in every state, only a few states mandate its inclusion in health insurance plans. California, for example, doesn’t mandate that health insurance plans include IVF. This means that access to the treatment is restricted.

Cryopreserved embryos at Reproductive Science Center of the San Francisco Bay Area, in San Ramon, California. The fertility clinic was a location for Beautiful
Cryopreserved embryos at Reproductive Science Center of the San Francisco Bay Area, in San Ramon. The fertility clinic was a location for the documentary Beautiful Sin by Berkeley filmmaker Gabriela Quirós

You grew up in Costa Rica but now call Berkeley home. Why did you decide to make the United States your permanent residence?

I was born in Boston from a Costa Rican father and an American mother. I grew up in Costa Rica and worked there as a print reporter. In 1996, I moved to the Bay Area to study documentary filmmaking at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. And I never left. I’m fortunate that I can make a living here producing science videos at KQED. And my husband is a Californian who loves his home state.

Tell us about the process of making the film. How long did it take? How did you find the couples you profiled? How did you juggle your job at KQED and your family life with traveling frequently to Central America? What challenges did you face?

It took me almost 12 years to finish the film. I started filming about a year and a half after the Costa Rican Supreme Court banned IVF. I approached the doctors who had pioneered the treatment in Costa Rica – a husband-and-wife team. They helped me get in touch with patients of theirs whose treatment had been interrupted when the ban came down. That’s how I met the three couples who I followed in Beautiful Sin.

I’ve been a full-time staff TV producer at KQED since 2006. I used vacation time to go film. As I was finishing the film with monies from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, KQED came in and provided me with the services that I needed to do the final edit. That last push was vital.

Making the film was a transnational affair that involved my family and friends here and my family and friends in Costa Rica. On one of my filming trips to Costa Rica my father was my driver and production assistant. My mother made sandwiches for the crew. My filmmaker friends lent me their lights. Back in Berkeley, I started editing the film when my daughter was in utero. The first time I felt her move inside me was while I was editing. She heard Costa Rica’s first IVF baby cry in the film and she did a somersault.

Here is a 45-second clip from Beautiful Sin:

Teaser – Beautiful Sin from Gabriela Quiros on Vimeo.

Beautiful Sin airs on KQED TV on Sunday Sept. 13 at 6 p.m.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...