Is U.S. 'Gagging' the World on Abortion?

It was a decision Nirmal Bista never really wanted to make: a choice between money and principles, shutting up or sticking it out, and most harrowingly, one that involved the lives — and potential deaths — of millions of his countrywomen.

On Jan. 22, 2001 — his second day in office — President Bush issued an executive order denying U.S. aid money to any foreign nongovernmental organization offering women abortion counseling, services, or campaigning to liberalize their country's abortion laws.

Commonly called the "Mexico City Policy," the order also prohibits aid to groups that use funding from other sources for these activities. It does, however, make exceptions for abortion-related services due to rape, incest, or a threat to the woman's life.

On the 31st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion rights and pro-abortion rights groups are converging in Washington and across the country today to voice their differing opinions on the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States.

But halfway around the world — far from Washington's vitriolic political conflagration between the two sides on the abortion debate — Bista was faced with an unenviable choice.

As the director general of the Family Planning Association of Nepal, the leading reproductive health NGO in an impoverished country where an estimated six women die every day due unsafe abortions, Bista opted to forego U.S. government funding for his group.

"It was by no means an easy decision," Bista said in a phone interview with ABCNEWS.com from Katmandu, the Nepali capital.

"By refusing to sign [on to the Mexico City Policy] we have lost approximately $600,000 out of a core budget of $1.2 million," he said. "This may not sound like a lot of money in U.S terms, but here in Nepal, it has meant having to make decisions about closing clinics, laying off staff and medical professionals, and discontinuing critical services to thousands of needy women."

Raped, Then Imprisoned for Infanticide

But the decision, as far as Bista is concerned, did lead to one important gain. In September 2002, Nepal's King Gyanendra approved a law legalizing most abortions after decades of campaigning against the country's colonial-era laws by rights and medical professional groups — including FPAN.

In her tiny home in Katmandu, Min Min Lama says she's happy about the new legislation. A former carpet weaver, Lama was sentenced in 1997 to 20 years in prison on infanticide charges for having an illegal abortion. She was 13 years old at the time, and had become pregnant after being raped by a relative.

Luckily for Lama, she served only 18 months before local rights groups took up her case and secured her release. But not everyone, she notes, is as fortunate.

In a nation where infanticide charges accounted for a substantial proportion of female incarcerations, several women previously imprisoned for abortions still languish in Nepal's prisons — many with no access to lawyers — despite the recent legalization of abortions.

Now 19, Lama is married to a tempo (a three-wheeled, motorized rickshaw) driver, and occasionally, she still goes to Katmandu's Central Jail to visit her inmate friends.

Exporting America’s Conflict

While the uneducated former carpet weaver has heard about Nepal's legalization of abortion, she says she knows nothing about the Mexico City Policy or its likely effects on women across the developing world.

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