KATHMANDU, Nepal There is no word for abortion in the language of ethnic Tibetan people. The closest phrase is "throw-away baby."
But even without a word, ethnic Tibetan women in Nepal understand the concept. Since 2002 when the developing country overturned laws that imprisoned women for abortion and equated the practice with infanticide, the legislative pendulum has swung dramatically.
Today abortion in Nepal is legal except for the purpose of gender selection. The "morning after" pill is available without a prescription in local pharmacies. Among its Asian neighbors, Nepal ranks with China, Vietnam, Cambodia and North Korea as a country that permits abortion without restriction.
Abortion rights advocates call this "success" touting the availability of safe abortions as a significant factor in the 78 percent drop in maternal mortality since 1990. They say safe abortions have significantly improved women's health.
Jewel Deckard,* a missionary in Nepal, knows there's more to it. Much more.
"Sometimes people that help with abortions tell you that this is not a baby," the 33-year-old mother of preschoolers tells a small group of women as she holds a model of a 24-week-old fetus. "But I really want you to know that is a lie. It is a baby."
Deckard, who has lived in Nepal since 2005, wants women to know the full story of fetal development and to understand the sociological, psychological and spiritual toll of abortion on women's health. She developed a passion to educate women after reading the story, "Christians fight infant killing in Indian slum," about one family's response to infanticide in India in 2010. At the same time, she was seeking ways to connect with ethnic Tibetan women.
"I decided teaching women about their bodies and how babies develop was something I could do to bring women together," Deckard says. "It's practical and it builds relationships."
She also wanted to introduce women to the Creator God and help them understand the value of life in God's eyes. As a result, she designed a fetal development course tied to chronological Bible stories, which she has since shared with other Christian workers throughout South Asia.
Telling the story
In this group of about 10 women, ranging in age from 13 to 45, the need for the classes quickly becomes obvious. All attending whether married or single are red-faced and bashful. The 13-year-old girl leaves quickly too embarrassed to stay. They've heard about the topic but seldom discuss these things.
There is one Christian among them; the rest are Tibetan Buddhists. They understand the cycle of sin bad karma but they have no idea how to escape it. They attempt to find forgiveness by reciting mantras, offering sacrifices of incense and worshipping at local monasteries and the stupa a large Buddhist temple in the center of town.
After Deckard's co-worker, Janice Bratcher,* shares "Creation to Christ" short summaries of key Bible stories from creation to the resurrection Deckard carefully explains each stage of pregnancy and fetal development, displaying models of the fetus at 9, 12, 24 and 36 weeks. She passes the models to the women sitting in a circle, and eyes widen with wonder as the women gently handle them.
"It's OK," Deckard says, smiling. "It's just a model. Not a real baby."
The women giggle with nervous laughter as they discuss myths of when a woman can no longer get pregnant and the facts of menopause.
But the atmosphere changes when Deckard discusses abortion.
"Many people after they have abortions feel very sad," Deckard says. "God doesn't like abortion because He is the Creator of life."
The women sit quietly, nodding solemnly. No one laughs. No one admits to an abortion. No one shares a story. As with most discussions on sexual behavior, the topic is not discussed, even among friends.
"But, God can forgive you," Deckard is quick to explain. "Just like Janice told you in the story, Jesus died for our sins. No sin is beyond His forgiveness."
Valued by God
With the help of local believers, Deckard has been teaching these classes to women for the past three years not just in Kathmandu but in small villages throughout the Himalayas that often require days of walking just to access.
Two volunteers also are helping Deckard develop a comprehensive program to address women's health issues from puberty to menopause. The three intend to weave Bible stories throughout the curriculum to help women understand their value in God's eyes.
"Health education is just one way to connect women," Deckard says. "Women to women. Believers with nonbelievers. We just want them to know the full story."
*Name changed for protection.