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We regret to say that in Japan, there has not been a holistic understanding of “reproductive health/rights”.
It is generally said that the maternal mortality rate is a reflection of the women’s status and women’s rights in a society. However, this does not apply to Japan. Japan’s MMR is 10 out of 100,000 live births, which may seem preferable, but not optimal. Decrease in MMR in Japan is a result of transient economic development, and not a sign that women’s choice and dignity are respected. For example, Japan’s GEM (Gender Empowerment Measures) ranked 54th among 93 countries. On 27 January 2007, then Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare, Mr. Hakuo Yanagisawa said publicly that women were “machines for child bearing”. This was not a slip of tongue but a direct expression of Japanese government’s policy. Japan had been known as “abortion paradise”, but unfortunately this was not the result of respect for women’s human rights and choices; it was in fact a part of government’s population control policy. Since 1880 until today, abortion in Japan is prohibited by criminal law as feticide, and is therefore illegal, but the Eugenic Protection Law (renamed as Law for Protection of Mothers’ Bodies in 1996) has provided a way for abortions in Japan as an article in this Law permits abortion for economic reasons. Groups such as “Seicho-No-Ie” and Catholic organizations have repeatedly submitted amendment bills to the Diet in order to limit legal abortion in Japan. (Please read the next article for more information on abortion.)
As we entered into the 21st Century, there has been a backlash on reproductive rights, as seen in the fact that it failed to become part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as well as the implementation of Bush Administration’s “Global Gag Rule”. In this global trend, Japan also saw some changes against reproductive rights. For example, the use of the word “gender” was denied in public administration, and sex education materials were forfeited. This trend has been especially apparent in the last few years. In 2005, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led the “Fact-Finding Project against Radical Sex Education and ‘Gender-Free’ Education”, and criticized “explicit sex education” as well as denying the right to abort. Japan is one of the few developed countries with rising rate of HIV infection, and this can be seen partly as a result of prohibiting sex education.
Women Make Women’s Health
Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan started in 1970. It opposed government control of women’s bodies. In 1982, it stopped the Eugenic Protection Law from being amended for the worse. Women’s group SOSHIREN organized these actions, and built a network of women’s organizations in Japan. SOSHIREN’s slogan is “女（わたし）のからだはわたしのものWatashi no Karada wa Watashi no Mono (My (Woman’s) body belongs to me (to each woman))”, which means no matter what anyone else labels my body, it is I, the woman, who get to decide what to do with it. This is the way we translated the English term “reproductive freedom/rights” into Japanese, and it has been our slogan since.
Japan is not a role model in the area of reproductive health/rights, and there is not yet a consensus on reproductive rights within the country. The following are the risk factors to increase MMR in Japan: 1) Collapse of the obstetrics system; 2) Gap in the medical system: lack of medical care for the poor, disabled people, and foreigners; 3) Attack and backlash against the right to abortion.
Even within the current backlash, it is important to win a consensus on reproductive rights, monitor government policies on reproductive rights in Japan and abroad, lobby the Japanese government for reproductive rights, and enter into the international solidarity of women’s NGOs, in order to protect women’s dignity and rights to choose.
Abortion in Japan
In Japan, there are three main laws related to abortion: Criminal Law, the Law for Protection of Mothers’ Bodies (before the 1996 revision, it was called the Eugenic Protection Law), and the Maternal and Child Health Law.
Criminal Law was enacted in 1880, and penalizes both the pregnant woman and the person who performed an abortion, as a crime of Feticide. Applying this law, many women were imprisoned, especially during wartime. After World War II, the “Crime of Feticide” remained.
In 1948, with the enactment of the Eugenic Protection Law, induced abortions were legalized under certain conditions. From 1949 the conditions included the following; 1) Eugenic reason(*), 2) Medico-economic reason, and 3) Rape. In 1996 the Eugenic Protection Law was partially revised. The eugenic reason for abortion was deleted and the law came to be called the Law for Protection of Mothers’ Bodies. But to have an abortion, judgment by a doctor and an agreement by the male spouse of the pregnant woman are needed, so the women’s right to choose has not been guaranteed.
“The Maternal and Child Health Law” locates and protects a woman’s body only as “a function to bear healthy children”.
In Japan, there are two main issues related to abortion. One is how to defend abortion rights in the climate of backlash against gender equality and reproductive rights. The other is how to realize social justice in having an abortion and using some advanced medical technologies.
Issue 1. Backlash against abortion rights
In Japan, economic reason has been applied most often by women who become unintentionally pregnant and wish to have an abortion. There have been, however, many backlash movements which attempt to delete the economic reason article, so the Women’s Liberation Movement has actively fought to defend abortion rights.
For example, “Seicho-No-Ie” has campaigned to delete the economic reason article as a reason for abortions and also campaigned against the practice of birth control since the 1950's. “Seicho-No-Ie” submitted the Eugenic Protection Law Reform Bill to delete the economic reason article and add the fetus article, to the Diet in 1972 and 1973, but the reform bill did not pass due to insufficient discussion and examination. During the Reagan Administration, “Seicho-No-Ie” dispatched a pro-life delegate to the National Prayer Power Breakfast and cooperated with the Moral Majority. In 1983, Mr. Masakuni Murakami, a Diet member, participated in the U.S. Life Respect Meeting, which was also attended by former president Reagan. In this background, “Seicho-No-Ie” attempted to re-submit the Eugenic Protection Law Reform Bill intending to delete an economic reason article in 1982, but the attempt failed due to resistance from the Women’s Liberation Movement, the movement by people with disabilities, the Japan Family Planning Association, and other many groups.
Many pro-life organizations were established in Japan from the late 1980s. For example, Japan Life Movement has actively disseminated pro-life information from the Holy See in Japan since 1987. In 1991, pro-life groups organized the International Life Respect Tokyo Meeting, receiving support from the Life Issue Institute. The Life Respect Center established the Yen-bryo (embryo) Fund in 1993 to prevent abortions for economic distress.
Since the ICPD (1994), the word “reproductive health/rights” has been used gradually by public women’s centers and local public entities in Japan. The idea of respecting a woman’s choice has gradually come into existence. After 2001, however, the neo-conservatives who helped establish U.S. Bush Administration strengthened pressure on the Japanese government to insert conservative family values, including denying abortion rights, into Japanese policy.
As a result, the national second Gender Equality Basic Plan (2005) was extensively altered to limit reproductive rights. The national first Gender Equality Basic Plan (2000) stated:
reproductive health/rights include the rights to choose whether we give birth or not, when we give birth, and how many children we bear. General provisions to promote women’s health throughout their lives are needed from the viewpoint of reproductive health/rights.
The national second Gender Equality Basic Plan, however, states:
the Japanese government does not accept abortion rights beyond the description of law because abortion is covered by Criminal Law and the Law for Protection of Mothers’ Bodies.
In addition, a hospital, which objects abortions from the Catholic anti-abortionist point of view, established in 2007 the “stork cradle,” which anonymously receives newborn babies from parents who cannot raise them.
Issue 2. Relationship between women’s movement and movement of people with disabilities
In Japan, the Women’s Liberation Movement, for example “SOSHIREN(**)”, has brought the close relationship; from collision to cooperation with the movement of people with disabilities to prevent the Eugenic Protection Law from a change for the worse. The Eugenic Protection Law aimed at “preventing birth of a bad descendant from the eugenic standpoint”. The Law promoted sterilization, even though what women had wanted was the rights to contraception and abortion. In addition, the fetus article to admit an abortion when the fetus has a disability was controversial in the protest movement against the attempt to change the Eugenic Protection Law for the worse. People with disabilities were afraid that fetus with disabilities would be aborted selectively if abortion rights were guaranteed. Therefore women’s movement discussed the issue with many people with disabilities and carried forward the movement for preventing the Eugenic Protection Law from a change for the worse. The women’s movement insisted that the society where every woman can bear any child should be developed.
Although the technology, such as prenatal diagnosis and pre-implantation diagnosis to select a fetus, has been developed, the women’s movement has opposed selecting a fetus by its condition such as having an disability or by its sex, and has objected to the eugenic thought to torment not only people with disabilities but also women who bore a child with disabilities. But the women’s movement has taken the standpoint clearly that a woman who performed any abortion should not be punished by the law, even if she had an abortion not to bear a fetus with disabilities.
These are the main features of the movement on abortion in Japan. Space Allies demands that “Crime of Feticide” be abolished and women’s right to abort be guaranteed worldwide.
(*The Eugenic Protection Law, enacted in 1948, expanded the conditions for abortion on the othe0072 hand it aimed to prohibit births of “defective” offspring from a eugenic point of view. By applying this Law, or rather misapplying it, many sterilizations were carried out.)
(**SOSHIREN homepage: www.soshiren.org)