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Battle for reproductive rights continues in Japan

October 23, 2022
topics: Abortion
by: Sasha Kong
located in: Japan
tags: aboriton, Japan, Reproductive Rights, women's rights

Japanese women who want to have an abortion still need their husband's consent under the law, and many have limited access to emergency pills. Some experts believe there is growing momentum now to amend the law.

When a woman in Japan goes to a hospital to have an abortion, doctors not only charge her a high rate, but also request proof of consent from the father.

In a country where over 95 percent of sexual violence cases go unreported and victim blaming remains endemic, some women reportedly even had to gain consent from their rapist in order to terminate the unwanted pregnancy. 

As Japan considers whether to legalise abortion pills for the first time, media attention over the issue has rekindled a heated debate over the nation's abortion law requiring male consent, which critics and women’s rights advocates believe should be reviewed. 

Japan is among the only three countries in Asia that require spousal consent for abortion, along with former Japanese colony Taiwan and Southeast Asian country Indonesia.

Currently in Japan, women can only have an abortion within 21 weeks after the last menstruation through surgical intervention - a procedure that costs roughly USD $1,750. Oral abortion medication isn’t an option for Japanese women yet, even though it is available in dozens of other countries around the world.

Abortion was legalised in Japan in 1948 in a bid to eliminate the so-called "inferior" newborns in Eugenics Protection Law. The law was later renamed and amended, and now allows women to terminate their pregnancy for economic reasons, but male consent is still needed. 

And although the law only requires married women to obtain permission from their husband to terminate a pregnancy, several reports show that many hospitals and clinics in Japan ask unmarried women to obtain consent from the father in order to avoid being sued. 

Restricted abortion access

"Why this spousal consent clause still exists seems very hard to understand," Dr Isabel Fassbender, assistant professor at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts who penned a study about the politics of reproduction in contemporary Japan, told FairPlanet. 

She added that the clause is being defended by "many Japanese policymakers desperately clinging to the 'tradition’ of patriarchy.' "

Less than a decade ago, a Japanese lawmaker even suggested banning abortion as a tactic to boost Japan’s birth rate. 

"The ones who hold power and decide [reproductive policies] at the end are people, mostly men, who do not support or are even familiar with the idea of reproductive and sexual rights," Dr Fassbender added.

"On an official level, the debate is dominated by male experts who have their own economic interests and who often argue in the context of socio-political circumstances, especially the low birth rate in Japan."

The United Nations expressed concerns over Japan’s abortion law, citing a high rate of teenage abortion and suicide. It recommended that the country amend its law to expand abortion access to women and remove the requirement of spousal consent. 

Tokyo’s response to the report was to reiterate that under the law if the man cannot indicate his intention, the woman's consent alone is sufficient to access abortion - as is the case in instances involving domestic violence.

It further stated that women’s health centres should "develop a counseling system by assigning specialised counsellors," to ease unexpected pregnancy qualms. 

However, Japanese women are subjected to societal pressure when they try to have an abortion, Dr Fassbender said. 

"It seems difficult to find someone to talk to for some women when they find out about an unwanted pregnancy," she explained. "Usually, these are cases of women who are in very isolated situations, not rarely raised in abusive and negligent environments.

"In addition, there is a lot of stigma regarding pregnancies in teenagers or university students, which adds to these young women's dire situations."

Japan’s sex education programmes, Dr Fassbender believes, could be part of the reason, as sex remains taboo in the nation. The expert said that many in Japan are completely unaware about the existence of emergency day-after pills and that contraceptives for women are both expensive and only available upon prescription. 

Medical experts from the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists - who are, it should be noted, mostly men - oppose easing access to emergency pills, claiming that "women seeking emergency contraceptives, or people behind them, may be involved in the sex industry or a criminal organisation who might transfer drugs to other."

Oral contraceptives - which only about 3 percent percent of women in Japan are using - took decades to reach the market in Japan; yet activists say that Viagra - a drug treating erectile dysfunction - took only several months to be approved.

Dr Fassbender expects these experts to "turn the [abortion pill] application down."

Community solutions

In some extreme cases, Japanese women who were denied abortion access resorted to abandoning their newborns or even killing them. To prevent this from happening, two hospitals in Japan - in Hokkaido and Kumamoto - offer "baby hatches" where parents can leave their babies anonymously.

Dr Fassbender urged hospitals to increase the number of baby hatches for women and to boost accessibility, among other measures.

Aiming to offer free emergency pills to young women, an advocacy group called Sowledge has also started a crowdfunding platform earlier this year. The group also makes toilet papers printed with sex education information in order to bridge the sex-ed gap in schools. The campaigners said that sex education programmes tend to teach students only about sexual violence and neglect covering sexual intercourse. 

Dr Fassbender said it is important to "[actively] involve young women in decisions that are about their bodies.

"That might be the biggest issue,” she said.

Picture by Jason Rost

Article written by:
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Sasha Kong
Author
Japan
When a woman in Japan goes to a hospital to have an abortion, doctors not only charge her a high rate, but also request proof of consent from the father.
In a country where over 95 percent of sexual violence cases go unreported and victim blaming remains endemic, some women reportedly even had to gain consent from their rapist in order to terminate the unwanted pregnancy.
"Why this spousal consent clause still exists seems very hard to understand."
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