Victims of the eugenics law

A damages lawsuit filed by a woman forcibly sterilized under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law should prompt the government to quickly review what happened to the thousands of people who were subjected to such operations, clarify its responsibility for their plight and acknowledge where it erred under the policy. It should then consider remedial steps to those whose rights were infringed through the forced sterilization.

The suit — the first of its kind seeking state redress concerning the 1948 law — was filed Tuesday by a woman in her 60s from Miyagi Prefecture, who charges that the government committed a serious violation of her human rights by making it impossible for her to give birth to and raise children. On the basis of diagnosis by a local hospital in 1972 — when the woman was 15 — that she was suffering from serious hereditary mental retardation, the prefectural eugenic protection review board determined that she had to undergo sterilization. The surgery was carried out with no explanation given by the doctor to her. Afterward, the woman complained regularly of stomach pains. She has been unable to marry due to the sterilization as well as the loss of a right ovary in an operation for malignant cystoma.

The woman accuses the government of violating the Constitution — which says that all people shall be respected as individuals and guaranteed the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness — by forcing sterilization on her and is calling for ¥11 million in damages.

Forced sterilization under eugenics programs was instituted in some countries in the early part of the 20th century. Against the backdrop of Japan’s rapid population growth right after the war, the Eugenic Protection Law was put into force in 1948 with the aim of preventing births of eugenically inferior offspring. It allowed doctors to carry out sterilization of people who had mental disabilities or illnesses and hereditary diseases even without their and their relatives’ consent if the doctors determined that such sterilization was necessary for the public interest and if the local review panel approved their opinion. A Health and Welfare Ministry notice in 1953 said that sterilization surgery approved by a eugenics protection review board could be carried out even if the subjects of the operation opposed it — allowing for the use of physical restraints, anesthesia and deception to get them to accept the surgery.

According to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, sterilization surgeries under the law were carried out on some 25,000 people — about 16,500 of which without the consent of those who underwent the procedure. As criticism mounted that it discriminated against people with disabilities, the law was revised into the Maternal Protection Law in 1996 by eliminating the discriminatory clauses, including the provision for forced sterilization.

Calls have grown since around 2000 for the government to take remedial measures toward the people subjected to forced sterilization. The issue of compensation for them was taken up in the Diet, and the bar federation called on the government to look into detailed facts related to the issue and offer damages to the victims. The government, however, has been slow to respond. It has refused either to look into what had taken place under the law or offer an apology, saying that the forced sterilization was legal while the Eugenic Protection Law was in effect.

The government’s position is in stark contrast to the actions taken by Sweden and Germany. After such laws were abolished in those countries, officials examined what transpired, offered apologies and paid compensation to the victims by taking the necessary legal steps.

The government should be reminded of the Kumamoto District Court’s 2001 ruling that the Leprosy Prevention Law, which forcefully separated Hansen’s disease patients from families and communities and confined them for life in sanatoriums, was unconstitutional, and ordered the state to pay compensation to victims under the State Redress Law. The leprosy law had been abolished in 1996 and the government did not appeal the ruling. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and both houses of the Diet issued apologies, and legislation to pay damages to the former patients soon took effect. In this connection, it must be noted that sterilization was performed on Hansen’s disease patients under the Eugenic Protection Law.

The eugenics law caused deep scars on large numbers of people for nearly half a century. Many local authorities have destroyed records of sterilization surgeries performed under the law and many of the victims and their relatives who can testify are aging and dying. The government should move quickly to establish the facts about the situation and take remedial action.

Eugenic ideas that certain types of people don’t deserve to live have not died out. In 2016, the nation was shocked by the murders of 19 residents of a welfare facility for people with disabilities in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture — committed by a former staffer at the facility who reportedly claimed that people with serious disabilities should be eliminated because they only create unhappiness. Helping to prevent such ideas from having an influence on society is all the more reason for taking quick action on the forced sterilization issue.