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Recognized Yet Limited: Abortion Rights in Nepal

Gaps in Access and Equity Pose Challenges to Reproductive Rights

Nepalese police outside the Supreme Court in Kathmandu, Nepal on February 23, 2021. © 2021 Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto via AP

Following the deaths of countless women who had undergone unsafe abortions, Nepal legalized the procedure in 2002. In 2018, Nepal’s government went further to protect women, enacting legislation that recognizes seeking abortion as a fundamental human right. But more needs to be done to expand safe abortion access across the country.

Nepal’s 2018 abortion law permits women to seek abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks of gestation, and up to 28 weeks in cases of rape or incest. Abortion is also legal up to 28 weeks of the pregnancy if a licensed medical practitioner identifies a risk to the woman’s mental or physical health or if the fetus is “likely to become non-viable.”

Before 2002, women regularly underwent clandestine abortions despite risking lengthy prison terms. Government data from 1998 indicates that over half of the gynecologic and obstetric hospital admissions at the time were due to abortion. Prosecutions of women continued until at least 2017.

In a landmark 2009 decision, Nepal’s Supreme Court recognized that adopting laws permitting abortion is insufficient to protect women’s reproductive rights. The plaintiff in this case, hailing from a poor, rural part of Nepal, sued the state after being forced to give birth to her sixth child because she could not afford the abortion fees. The court ruled that the government must build institutions to provide affordable and accessible abortion services to all women.  

While the 2018 Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Rights Act (SMRHR Act) recognizes access to safe and affordable abortion services as a fundamental human right, abortion remains a criminal offence. Nepal’s government should deliver its 2021 commitment to decriminalize abortion by removing from the criminal code the provision that criminalizes abortion, thereby bringing it in line with legislation and the constitution which clearly recognize the right.

Access to second-trimester abortion remains limited in Nepal, and women continue to pursue unsafe procedures. More needs to be done by increasing awareness about the legal status and availability of safe abortion services, especially in rural areas.

Nepal has made strides by recognizing abortion rights as fundamental human rights. But lack of access and equity, and legal uncertainty pose ongoing challenges to the realization of these rights by all women in Nepal.

*This dispatch is part of a series of articles looking at abortion rights around the world. You can find the series here.  

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