Japan: the battle for the right to abortion continues

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Japanese women who wish 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 now a growing momentum to change the law.

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

In a country where more 95% of cases of sexual violence are not reported and victim blaming remains endemic, some women should have even obtained the consent of their rapist to terminate the unwanted pregnancy.

As Japan plans to legalize abortion pills for the first time, media attention to the issue has reignited heated debate over the nation’s abortion law requiring male consent, which critics and advocates say of women’s rights, should be revised.

Japan is one of the only three countries in Asia that require spousal consent for abortion, as well as the former Japanese colony of Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries Indonesia.

Currently in Japan, women can only abort within 21 weeks of conception through surgery – a procedure that costs around US$1,750. Oral abortion drugs are not yet an option for Japanese women, although they are available in dozens of other countries around the world.

Abortion was legalized in Japan in 1948 as part of a bid eliminate so-called “inferior” newborns in the eugenics protection law. The law was later renamed and amended and now allows women to terminate their pregnancies for economic reasons, but the consent of the man is still required.

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

Restricted access to abortion

“Why this spousal consent clause still exists seems very difficult to understand,” Dr. Isabel Fassbender, an assistant professor at the Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts who authored a study on reproductive politics in contemporary Japan, told FairPlanet.

She added that the clause is championed by ‘many Japanese policymakers who desperately cling to the’tradition of patriarchy.’ “

Less than ten years ago, a Japanese legislator even suggested prohibit abortion as a tactic to increase the birth rate in Japan.

“Those who hold the power and decide [reproductive policies] in the end, there are people, mostly men, who don’t support or even know about the idea of ​​reproductive and sexual rights,” Dr. Fassbender added.

“At the 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 Japan’s low birth rate.”

The United Nations Express concerns about Japan’s abortion law, citing a high rate of teenage abortion and suicide. He recommended that the country change its law to extend access to abortion to women and remove the requirement for spousal consent.

the Tokyo one answer to the report was to recall that under the law, if the man cannot indicate his intention, the sole consent of the woman is sufficient to access an abortion – as is the case in cases of domestic violence .

He furthermore declared that women’s health centers should “develop a counseling system by assigning specialist counsellors”, to allay unexpected pregnancy scruples.

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

“It seems hard 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 infrequently brought up in abusive and neglectful environments.

“Also, there’s a lot of stigma around teenage pregnancies or college students, which adds to the dire situation for these young women.”

Japan’s sex education programs, Dr. Fassbender believes, may be the cause, because sex remains taboo in the nation. The expert said many in Japan are completely unaware of the existence of emergency morning after pills and that contraceptives for women are both expensive and only available by prescription.

Medical experts from the Japanese Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists – who are, it should be noted, mostly men – to oppose facilitating access to emergency pills, saying that “women seeking emergency contraceptives, or the people behind them, may be involved in the sex industry or a criminal organization that could transfer drugs to other others”.

Oral contraceptives – which represent only about 3 percent percent women in Japan consume – took decades to reach the Japanese market; Yet campaigners say Viagra – an erectile dysfunction drug – only took a few months to be approved.

Dr. Fassbender expects these experts to “transform the [abortion pill] app down.”

Community solutions

In certain extreme cases, Japanese women who were denied access to abortion resorted to abandoning their newborn babies or even killing them. To prevent this from happening, two hospitals in Japan – in Hokkaido and Kumamoto – are offering “baby hatcheswhere parents can leave their babies anonymously.

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

In an effort to provide free emergency pills to young women, an advocacy group called Sowledge has also started a crowdfunding platform earlier this year. The group also manufactures toilet paper printed with sex education information to help bridge the sex education gap in schools. Activists said that sex education programs tend to teach students only about sexual abuse and sexual neglect.

Dr Fassbender said it was important to “[actively] involve young women in decisions that affect their bodies.

“That’s maybe the biggest problem,” she said.

Picture by Jason Rost

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