TV personalities, or tarento in the vernacular parlance, wage a never-ending battle against encroaching irrelevance. They impose on our consciousness, and one of the easiest ways to do that without offering a compelling skills set is to exploit personal circumstances that are none of our business. Last June, Riko Higashio underwent a serum marker test to check on her unborn child. It was the first baby for the 37-year-old pro golfer, the daughter of former Seibu Lions manager Osamu Higashio and the much younger wife of fellow tarento Junichi Ishida. Prenatal screening is recommended for women over a certain age, and the test came back positive, indicating an increased possibility that the fetus could have the developmental disorder Down syndrome (DS).
Normally the doctor suggests a followup test, such as amniocentesis, but Higashio decided to forego further screening, saying there was no point since she decided she would deliver the baby regardless of what happened. Former long distance runner-cum-TV tarento and current Kumamoto city assemblyperson Akemi Matsuno criticized Higashio in the weekly Josei Seven. Matsuno’s son has DS, and she thought Higashio’s disclosure of her screening information was self-serving. The child was born in November without any apparent disabilities and received a great deal of press coverage, certainly more than if Higashio hadn’t talked about her pregnancy and Matsuno hadn’t weighed in.
The story provoked the media’s interest in screening, which is controversial, especially since a new blood test was developed to check fetal DNA. On March 9, the Japan Down Syndrome Association announced that it was opposed to guidelines the health ministry had drawn up for the test because they “could result in discrimination against DS individuals.” The test is said to be 99 percent accurate for negative results and 80-95 percent accurate for positive results. The ostensible reason for having a prenatal check is to find abnormalities that can be treated, either during the pregnancy or thereafter, but DS is not one of them. The association is afraid that testing will lead to an increase in abortions of fetuses with less desirable qualities, a form of eugenics. But once a technology is available it’s difficult to withdraw, and doctors are saying that rather than restrict the blood test, counseling should be provided to expectant mothers so that they understand the ramifications of the results. The average age for first-time mothers is increasing, and birth defects become more likely the older a woman is. Some experts say the very existence of the test could mean more pregnancies, since women may be inclined to have children if they think they can always abort fetuses found to have birth defects. The most significant outcome of the media interest in prenatal testing is a discussion of abortion itself, a subject they usually avoid.
Consequently, a recent court case has captured their attention. In 2010, attorney Satoka Adachi became pregnant with her second child, but an ultrasound administered during her fifth month revealed multiple organ problems. The doctor said the male fetus would probably not survive the pregnancy and even if he did he would be in a vegetative state. The doctor also said the longer the fetus stayed in Adachi’s body the greater the danger to her in the event of a miscarriage. Adachi consented to an abortion in her eighteenth week. Afterwards, the hospital gave her a completed copy of the consent form she signed, which indicated that delivery of a dead fetus had been medically induced, but she was puzzled that the reason given for the procedure was “financial.”
Despite her law degree, Adachi did not know that abortion is illegal in Japan. There are two exceptions, one of which is that a woman can terminate a pregnancy if her own life is at risk, but in Adachi’s case that could only have applied if the fetus was already dead. The law does not allow abortion for birth defects, and the doctor felt it was too risky to wait until the baby died, so he used the other loophole, which is that the mother cannot afford to feed or otherwise support the child after it is born. As Adachi has stated publicly, she is not poor. “That means I am a virtual criminal,” she told the weekly Aera. As a lawyer she was offended, and as woman insulted, so she is suing the government for ¥329,000, the cost of her hospitalization, though the purpose of the suit is to increase public awareness. Almost all of the 210,000 abortions performed in Japan each year come under the economic exception, which makes little sense since abortion is not covered by national insurance unless the mother is in danger. That means these putatively impoverished patients have to pay between ¥80,000 and ¥500,000 for the procedure. Adachi wants the government to explain, as a defendant, why it has such a law.
That’s easy. Abortion was criminalized in 1880 to ensure a steady supply of cannon fodder for Japan’s expansionist endeavors and the law has subsequently been amended several times in accordance with social conditions—the financial exception was added after World War II to address food shortages. Interested parties have managed to prevent the government from rescinding the exception, but that doesn’t mean women have a “choice” the way that term is understood in, say, the United States, where abortion is legal but tendentious. Pregnancies can be terminated in Japan only because the government says they can, which means it can also make abortion unavailable at any time.
Last month Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Seiko Noda, herself the mother of a disabled child, was quoted in the Asahi Shimbun as saying that abortion should be studied in light of the country’s stalled birthrate. Some media believe the remark indicates a possible abortion ban, but it could also suggest more accepting approaches to adoption and single motherhood, moves that would require an overhaul of the family law portion of Japan’s Civil Code. In focusing all their attention on pregnant women, the media forget those children who are actually going to be born.