and ain't I a woman: US 'aid' used to deny right to choose

May 15, 2002

and ain't I a woman?

and ain't I a woman: US 'aid' used to deny right to choose

What does the United States government have to do with deciding whether women in Nepal can access safe abortion services? Well, everything.

Even though the sovereign state of Nepal in March passed laws granting women the (limited) right to legal abortions, the political strings attached to the provision of US "aid" that funds many community health programs may render those rights useless.

Prior to Nepalese women gaining the right to legal abortion, it was not uncommon for women to be jailed for up to 20 years for having an abortion. In 1997, the proportion of women in Nepal's jails for reasons related to abortion was as high as 75%, according to figures from the Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN).

Thousands of women suffered even worse fates at the hands of unsafe, illegal abortion practitioners or at their own hands — on average six Nepalese women died per day due to complications from illegal abortions. This figure has contributed to Nepal having the fourth highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

The liberalisation of abortion laws in Nepal was a victory for women in a country where female literacy rates are only 12% and where the majority of women live in poverty. The laws are conditional, however. Abortion is only legal in the first trimester, in the case of rape or incest, or to protect a woman's health.

Nepal is a country with poor health and community resources, with many isolated rural communities. It has been driven further into poverty by the policies of the imperialist financial institutions. If Nepalese women are to take full advantage of their newly won rights, international assistance is urgently required to enable community health and family planning programs to be instituted.

In 1984, the US government introduced the "global gag rule" to erode the gains made by the international movement for abortion rights. This rule stipulated that community and health organisations receiving aid money from the US must not provide abortion services or even provide information on abortion.

Politically, it attempted to silence the campaign for abortion rights in Third World countries by placing funding conditions on the right of these organisations to even lobby for anti-abortion laws to be


When Bill Clinton became president in 1992, one of his administration's its first acts was to rescind the gag rule. However, by November 1999, according to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Clinton had capitulated to pressure from the religious right and the global gag rule become law (instead of just an administrative policy).

While the law was passed with the condition that the president could waive the gag rule restrictions (which Clinton did), it paved the way for future governments to strengthen restrictions to a far greater degree than the original 1984 policy. US President George Bush reinstated the global gag rule in January 2001.

This has left many organisations in the Third World in the impossible position of either kow-towing to the political conditions imposed by US aid — at the expense of the lives of thousands of women — or refusing to accept US aid money and relying on funding from other sources.

In Nepal, the FPAN and the Centre for Research on Environmental Health and Population Activities have both refused US funds in order to support the liberalisation of the abortion laws. FPAN's director, Dr Nirmal Bista, told the <> web site that the organisation lost $US250,000 because of its stand.

The right to choose when and if to have children is a fundamental human right for women across the globe. Why should this right be denied to women in poor countries already ravaged by the policies of the world's major imperialist power?

All supporters of a woman's right to choose abortion must act to oppose the use of the global gag rule by Washington. This issue is another example of the connection between the struggles against neo-liberal globalisation and the struggle for women's rights.


[The author is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.]

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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