Access and Barriers

A History of Safe Abortion Rights in Japan

In several countries across Asia – even those with liberal abortion laws – abortion is not considered a woman’s right. Recently, I learned that Japan is one of them.

Currently, abortion is criminal in Japan except under three conditions: to save the life of the mother, for economic purposes, and in case of sexual violence. Abortions are legal only if trained doctors perform them, and if a woman has her husband’s written consent. If women seek care at the hands of untrained practitioners, or attempt abortions at home they can be imprisoned for a year.

Strangely, a little bit of poking around on the Internet showed that abortions were not always illegal in Japan. Historic documents show that abortion was legal in the 12th century, and probably remained so until the 16th or 17th century, when conservative regimes spoke against it. Ever since, abortion has been selectively banned in Japan. In the early 20th century, abortion was permitted only to save the life of a woman.

In 1948, shortly after World War II Japan found itself facing a population crisis. Millions were reported to be starving, while the population itself was growing exponentially. In the same year, Japan became one of the first countries to legalize abortion under certain conditions. Between then, and the 1960s abortion was accepted as a form of population control throughout the country.

But in the 1970s, conservatism reared its head, and revived old customs like the Mizuko Mass, a memorial ceremony held for aborted fetuses. Very soon, negative attitudes to abortion spread around Japan.

Unfortunately, the Eugenic Law made matters worse, because it discriminated against disability, and permitted terminations for all forms of fetal disorders. So in 1996, when the Maternal Body Protection Law came into force, abortions for fetal anomalies, even fatal or highly disabling ones was criminalized. “In my opinion, while all forms of discrimination against people with disability should not be allowed, it should not be achieved through the restriction of access to reproductive health services,” said Fumi Suzuki of Space Allies, ASAP’s partner organization in Japan, in an email interview.

To complicate matters for women, the law of 1996 made it mandatory for married women to get explicit permissions from their husbands. This limits women who are victims of domestic abuse, wrote Fumi. Men could control women’s bodies and lives, “through not giving consent, not letting her go hospital and confining her and so on.”

The abortion stigma also limits the availability of accurate information on abortion, and engenders discriminatory attitudes towards abortion care providers, and patients. Women in rural areas are particularly limited by a lack of privacy in matters concerning their reproductive lives. While clandestine abortions occur around Japan, they are not always safe. Unfortunately, complications from unsafe abortions are under-reported and there is no accurate record of the rates of unsafe abortion.

Space Allies has now launched a campaign to decriminalize abortions in Japan, and to make it available as a right for all women. “The concept “Our bodies, ourselves” has not penetrated,” wrote Fumi in her email. “Decriminalization of abortion, dissemination of the concept of “Our bodies, ourselves” and achievement of holistic women’s health, are the goals of pro-choice feminists in Japan.”

She expects trouble from the right wing of the medical community and from religious conservative groups. However, the group has found allies in women’s rights groups. Women on Web recently have opened a helpdesk in Japanese, that will provide information on medical abortions for Japanese women who might be disadvantaged by the law.  To mark September 28, Space Allies translated the WHO update on safe abortion techniques into Japanese. Though the road may be long, steps like these may help make matters easier for Japanese women seeking abortions.

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