Women rights activists have urged the government to decriminalise abortion so as to enable women to enjoy their reproductive health rights, of which abortion is one component.

Legal Adviser to the Centre for Reproductive Right Prabhakar Shrestha said the current Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act and Criminal Code had criminalised abortion in certain cases and that hindered women, particularly poor and uneducated rural women from enjoying their reproductive health rights guaranteed as a fundamental right by the constitution.

Section 15 of Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act stipulates that terminations will be allowed 'without conditionality' in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, and with conditionalities between 13 to 28 weeks.

The conditionalities include pregnant mother's mental and physical health, foetal abnormalities and serious diseases.

Shrestha said one unmarried girl who aborted within 12 weeks at a government recognised health centre in Baitadi district was unnecessarily indicted after her brother lodged a complaint with the police.

"The girl was put in custody for three months before the court acquitted her. In some other cases, women have been prosecuted for miscarriage just because their family members or locals suspected that women had illicit relationship," Shrestha added.

Shrestha said the new Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act was more regressive than the General Code because even the General Code had allowed women to terminate their pregnancies at any stage in certain circumstances.

He said research studies showed that only 42 per cent women availed safe abortion services from valid health centres and 58 per cent women were not aware about the provisions that allowed terminations for up to 12 weeks without any conditionality.

"This means these women are likely to seek abortion from illegal service providers,"

Shrestha said and added that if abortion was not decriminalised, doctors and health professionals would face the risk of punishment.

He said Universal Periodic Review had recommended to the Nepal government to decriminalise abortion. Despite the UN body's recommendation, the government had made no effort in this regard.

Advocate Nabin Shrestha, who runs reproductive health rights campaign of Forum for Women, Law and Development, also said the stakeholders needed to decriminalise abortion.

He said prohibition of abortion after 28 weeks of pregnancy gave the message that abortion was a crime and often locals and family members targeted women for having abortion, and thus abortion had become a tool for males to punish women and thereby a case of domestic violence.

He said that abortion related provisions contained in the criminal code was unnecessary as specific Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act had already been enacted.

Nabin Shrestha also said that Safe Motherhood and Reproductive Health Act stipulated that privacy of women seeking abortion was not being protected mainly because health centres were being required to hang boards outside stating the availability of abortion service and any woman visiting such clinics were being perceived as seeking abortion.

"There is stigma attached to abortion and many women are scared to go to such clinics for fear of getting exposed in society," Nabin Shrestha said.

A version of this article appears in the print on December 30, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.