Five state-run sanitariums and a research center kept a macabre collection of dead babies and fetuses taken from Hansen’s disease patients, according to a report released Thursday.
Twenty-nine of the 114 specimens were probably slain after birth, the report says, adding that illegal abortions and autopsies were rampant at the six facilities.
The report was compiled by a third-party council set up by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to investigate the government’s quarantine policy on Hansen’s disease that lasted until 1996.
“Such actions took place in state-run sanitariums across the country,” the report says. “They deviate from medical ethics, and no other issue continues to damage the dignity of those placed in such facilities as much as this one.”
More than half of the specimens had not been operated on, it says. The council believes the fetuses and babies were not kept for research purposes, but simply because the facilities did not know what to do with them.
Fifty-seven of the specimens were preserved between 1924 and 1956. Of these, more than half were collected prior to 1948, when abortion was condoned under the Eugenic Protection Law. But even abortions performed after 1948 were still illegal without a patient’s consent.
Twenty-nine of the specimens were fetuses estimated to have been about 8 months old. Up until January 1976, abortions were only allowed on fetuses younger than 8 months.
Based on witness accounts by former patients, the council believes staff may have smothered the babies soon after birth, which would constitute murder under the Penal Code.
In addition to the fetuses and babies, the council also found that the six facilities had more than 2,000 specimens removed during autopsies on Hansen’s patients. In some cases, body parts were left in plastic buckets full of formalin, the council said.
“Patients were treated as objects for research, and autopsies were conducted on a routine basis,” the council said. “The reason why the specimens were preserved is inexplicable, and (the practices) go beyond medical common sense.”
The council advised that a memorial service be held for the specimens and said it plans to urge the ministry to take appropriate measures as soon as possible, including filing reports with police and other authorities.
The Leprosy Prevention Law was not repealed until 1996. Until then, Japan segregated patients in isolated sanitariums, despite knowing that Hansen’s disease is not highly contagious.
The sanitariums had maintained a basic policy of isolating the patients and waiting for them to die. In most cases, it did not permit patients to have children, and forced abortions and sterilizations were common, the council said.
A landmark court ruling in May 2001 found the Diet and the state responsible for the suffering of Hansen’s patients by failing to repeal the law until 1996, and ordered the state to pay compensation for forcing the patients into isolation.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who took office only a month before the ruling, made a surprise move in deciding that the government would not appeal the ruling. The Diet later passed a resolution of apology to the patients and a law to provide compensation.
But former patients continue to face discrimination in society. One notable incident occurred in September 2003, when a hotel in Kumamoto Prefecture refused to accept a group of them as guests.