National

Japan government silent as Kumamoto pioneers secret-birth system

JIJI

A private hospital in Kumamoto that has launched a program for women who want to give birth anonymously is calling on the government to legalize the program, but receiving little in the way of response.

Jikei Hospital, known for installing a so-called baby hatch where people can leave babies anonymously, started the program this month in a bid to rescue women forced into giving birth in isolation because of financial or other hardships.

In September 2017, a report compiled by a city task force about the baby hatch, known as the kōnotori no yurikago (stork’s cradle), highlighted the danger of isolated births, citing a case in which a woman who gave birth cut her umbilical cord by herself using scissors.

The report also took up the right of children to know their origin and called on the central government to consider creating a system for confidential births.

Germany enacted a law on confidential births in 2014. Under the system, mothers entrust sealed envelopes containing their identities to authorities and give birth anonymously.

The children are raised as foster children and become eligible to access the document when they reach 16. If their birth mothers refuse access, the case goes to the family courts.

Jikei Hospital said in December 2017 that it was considering a program modeled on Germany’s system and has since held discussions with the Kumamoto Municipal Government.

The municipality asked Tokyo to draft a relevant law, saying the matter cannot be solved between a municipality and a private hospital.

In the meantime, the health ministry is studying such systems in Germany and elsewhere as part of a two-year project that is scheduled to end next March.

Jikei Hospital has its own rules for its program. A staff member keeps documents containing the mothers’ identities and gives children access to the information when they reach a certain age.

But Nara University professor Fumio Tokotani, a specialist on the Civil Code, said the hospital’s system is not robust enough to deal with the conflict of interest between mothers’ right to privacy and children’s right to know.

“This is something the government must handle,” Tokotani said.

A Kumamoto official said, “There needs to be a consensus in society on how to protect children’s right to know their origin.”

Other gray zone points include legal procedures for those born under the program, such as how they should be treated under the national family registry system, or koseki.

Babies whose parents are anonymous are usually named by local government heads, and their own family registers will be compiled independently.

The same step is likely to be taken for babies born under the hospital’s program. A regional bureau of the Justice Ministry said it does not expect a situation in which such a baby would be born without a family registry.

Kumamoto has not disclosed how it will respond to births under the program.

Takeshi Hasuda, deputy head of the hospital, said the safety of mothers and their children is the top priority.

“There will be little progress in creating legislation unless there are examples,” he said.

An official of the health ministry’s maternal and child health division said it is examining situations both in and outside Japan.

Kumamoto Mayor Kazufumi Onishi said the city is trying to identify problems that may arise from Jikei’s program under the nation’s current legal framework.

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