From Base to Summit: Abortion Law Reform in Nepal

Article excerpt

Once notoriously known for having one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world, Nepal has now become one of the most liberal in handling the issue of abortion. Given the decades of subjecting women with unwanted pregnancies into the harshest conditions, the legal reform on abortion constitutes one of the most important footholds for Nepalese women in the post-democracy era.

In 2002, abortion was legalised on demand in the first trimester and on grounds of rape and incest during the first 18 weeks. The procedure is also allowed any time during a pregnancy in case of a fetal impairment or when the mother's life is in danger.

The previous law declared either causing or procuring the termination of a pregnancy to be an illegal and punishable act. While it contained an exception for terminations performed in pursuit of acts of "benevolence" (1) this exception remained ineffectual on account of its vagueness. In fact, these provisions resulted in an almost complete ban on abortion in practice.

These long-standing legal sanctions on abortion had developed the stigmatisation of the procedure and those involved in it. They led to the innumerable procedures done underground and incalculable social cost. The ban had a devastating impact on women's health and human rights.

Prior to the amendment, unsafe abortion accounted for up to 50 per cent of all maternal deaths. (2) Complications from unsafe abortion accounted for almost 60 per cent of all hospital admissions involving women. (3) Aside from maternal deaths, routine sentencing and imprisonment of women for allegedly undergoing abortion procedures happened. Many were also charged with the more serious crime of infanticide, which carried a harsh sentence of life imprisonment--the same punishment for murder. (4)

Mounting for Change

These draconian provisions were amended through the adoption of a sweeping anti-discrimination bill, advanced by women's rights activists, who were broadly supported by health experts. The demand for the legalisation of the procedure emerged from the recognition that the criminalisation of abortion is inherently unfair, discriminatory, and ultimately, violated women's human rights.

These views were based on two key sets of evidence: medical and legal analyses. Quantitative and qualitative data gathered by public health activists showed that unsafe abortion practices had tragically claimed thousands of women's lives. Meanwhile, the legal analysis demonstrated that women's rights to life, health, nondiscrimination, and legal due process, were systematically violated by the government through the implementation of criminal sanctions prescribed by the ban.

Some of the most noteworthy aspects of the historic process of law reform orchestrated and led by Nepalese women include: (1) the creation of strategic alliances between urban activists and grassroots women; (2) strong linkages between national nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and international organisations through consistent networking and information sharing; (3) simultaneous awareness-raising campaigns by national NGOs and grassroots organisations to generate a demand for legal reform; (4) targeted lobbying by such NGOs of government officials for the legal reform; (5) comprehensive technical input provided by NGOs on the draft bill which was informed by international and comparative norms and standards; (6) national advocacy campaigns to raise public awareness about the harmful impact of the ban across communities and classes through extensive use of radio, television and print media; and (7) on numerous occasions, direct engagement with the members of parliament.

Some Stumbling Blocks

While history was made with the amendment of abortion law in 2002, its implementation has been fraught with challenges. These include the failure of the government to ensure broad access to safe abortion services. …