In July, during the first US Senate hearing to examine the impact of the global gag rule on family planning services abroad, the Foreign Relations Committee heard the story of Min Min Lama, a teenage girl living in the mountains of Nepal. At age 13, she was raped by a family member–and sentenced to twenty years in prison for the crime of having an abortion.
Unable to ignore Nepal's dangerously high maternal mortality rate–one caused largely by unsafe abortions–the Nepal Ministry of Health recently joined forces with a slew of nongovernmental organizations to put an end to the country's restrictive abortion law. Enter: George W. Bush toting the global gag rule, named for a clause that prohibits US-funded NGOs from lobbying their governments to legalize abortion. Exit: all NGOs involved in a decriminalization movement that depends on US funds for survival.
The July Senate hearing was one of several attempts by some in Washington to overturn the global gag rule. With the split currently so close in Congress–a May House vote to uphold the policy passed by a margin of only 218 to 210, and several Senate Republicans have agreed to challenge the rule–there may be hope. On July 26, the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill to include language overturning the gag rule and increasing funding for family planning; on August 1, the Foreign Relations Committee amended the Global Democracy Promotion Act to include similar language. Most recently, the American Bar Association voted to adopt a resolution against the gag rule.
Many Republican politicians, swearing that the gag rule will not affect the health of women in developing countries, are quick to point out that the European Union and private organizations have picked up the financial slack created by what European activists deem "American cruelty." But in the six months since Bush's decision to reinstate the 1984 Mexico City Policy, there have been dramatic consequences for the welfare of women abroad. Countries that have thus far reported serious repercussions from signing on to the gag rule or refusing US funds include Bangladesh, Bolivia, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania and Turkey.
Nepal, with the fourth-highest maternal morbidity rate in the world, is a prime example of a country dramatically affected by the change in policy. Roughly six women in Nepal die every day from unsafe abortions. At the same time, Nepal has one of the most punitive abortion laws in the world–one in five women incarcerated in Nepal are imprisoned for abortion. Women faced with the realities of abortion are often young, with 50 percent of Nepali women bearing a child by age 19.
The Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN), the country's largest reproductive health and family-planning NGO, has received financial support from the US government for nearly thirty years. In 1994 FPAN launched an advocacy campaign to liberalize the existing abortion law. As a result, the Nepal Parliament is currently considering ratification of the Eleventh Amendment of the National Civil Code, which legalizes abortion up to the twelfth week; abortion in cases of rape, incest or life-threatening conditions would be allowed until the eighteenth week. Abortion after this period would still be punishable by a prison sentence of five years.