Two weeks ago a 17-year-old girl collapsed in a shopping mall in Hiroshima and was rushed to the hospital. At the same time a dead fetus was found on the floor in the corner of the mall’s food court. The girl eventually admitted that she had just given birth to the child. On Aug. 9, a cleaning person found the body of an infant wrapped in a towel in a train station rest room in Hamamatsu. An autopsy revealed that the baby was born shortly before it died and that the cause of death was an injury to a blood vessel. On Aug. 6 a baby’s corpse with the umbilical cord still attached was discovered in a plastic bag at a refuse collection station in Mie Prefecture. A 24-year-old woman who lived nearby was later arrested. She had given birth to the baby about a week earlier. In July, a 27-year-old woman in Osaka was arrested for possession of illegal drugs and when police searched her apartment they came across the remains of a baby in her closet. She said she had drowned the child five years earlier in a bathtub right after giving birth, which she never reported.
These four news stories appeared within the space of a month — and were not the only ones involving the killing of newborn babies — adding a dramatic dimension to a larger story that has been covered extensively by the mainstream media. In late July the health and welfare ministry released figures showing that the number of child abuse cases in 2011 rose for the 21st straight year, which isn’t necessarily surprising since it has only been in the last two decades that local governments have addressed the problem and encouraged people to report suspected abuse. but the part of the report that attracted the most scrutiny is the section on “death from abuse.” In 2010, 98 children died as a result of abuse, ten more than in 2009. When the number of children who perished in “group suicides” is subtracted, the number is 51, 80 percent of which represent children less than 3 years old. Twenty-three were less than one year old. If you expand the time frame and include all the children known to have died “through abuse” since 2003, the year the ministry started compiling figures, you find that between that year and 2011, 193 were less than one year old and 39 percent of those (76) died “on the day they were born.” Ninety percent of these infants were killed by their mothers.
It doesn’t take much deductive reasoning to conclude that these babies were not wanted in the first place. One can imagine the 17-year-old girl in Hiroshima slowly realizing that she is pregnant and suffering in silence as she tries to hide her condition from friends and family, and then going into labor in a shopping mall; or the 24-year-old Mie woman, who reportedly returned to her home town from Tokyo, presumably to have her unplanned child in secret, and when that happened she panicked and put the baby in a garbage bag.
News reports avoid the word “unwanted.” They use nozomanai, which means “unhoped for.” It may sound like a trivial distinction, but the idea that one’s pregnancy was “unhoped for” leaves open the possibility that it will result in something better. “Unwanted” doesn’t sound open-ended at all, and the gist of the related news reports and editorials is what the authorities are doing to address the problem. The solution is always to help these women accept what has happened to them and “rescue” those children born into situations where they become victims of abuse.
A recent Asahi Shimbun article reported on a counseling service set up by a maternal health center in Izumi at the request of the Osaka prefectural government. The center brought in an outside organization, Ninshin (pregnancy) SOS, which specifically answers queries from women about unplanned pregnancies. The stories followed the same patterns: the high school girl who can’t confide in anyone, the woman who finds herself pregnant, and then dumped, by her married lover.
The person in charge of Ninshin SOS, Takuyo Sato, told the Asahi that the prefecture set up the service because “there are too many babies dying from abuse.” Almost all the calls they receive are from women “who don’t want to be pregnant, and haven’t seen a doctor yet.” If the caller is a minor, she is urged to talk to her parents. If it is a woman who says she can’t afford a baby, they refer her to services that can help her for free or at minimum cost. If the caller sounds depressed, they urge her to seek a friend’s assistance, or go to her local welfare office and consult a case worker.
Sato believes that the work she is doing will be effective in “preventing abuse” of children who are the products of unplanned pregnancies. “We can reduce the risk that these women will go through labor without medical attention,” she says. “We can also reduce child abuse as a result of the feelings of mothers who didn’t want to give birth to them.”
And then she adds, “It might help if they work out the problem at an early stage.” The reporter doesn’t ask for clarification, but we can assume this means at an early stage in the pregnancy. Sato doesn’t say if she advises callers about abortions or even if any of the callers ask about the procedure, though SOS’s website offers information about terminating pregnancies. Abortion is never discussed in relation to this particular problem in the media. As it stands, hundreds of thousands of Japanese women undergo abortions in clinics and hospitals every year, even though technically abortion is illegal and not covered by any form of national insurance.
The fact that abortion is available and never discussed in the media when the topic is infanticide is like talking about suicide without mentioning intervention. Adoption should also be discussed in the same conversation, and it isn’t. As long as scared pregnant women are made to feel that their only recourse is having and raising a child they don’t want, it will be difficult to talk to them.