Editorials

Sterilization relief won't end the issue for victims

Legislation has been enacted in the Diet to offer ¥3.2 million in lump sum payments to each person subjected to sterilization surgery — many without their consent — on the grounds of intellectual and physical disabilities as well as hereditary diseases under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law. The payments are expected to start as early as June, finally providing relief to victims of sterilization under the law, which was in place from 1948 to 1996 to perform such surgery in order to prevent the births of “eugenically inferior” children. However, the enactment of the relief legislation — which comes 23 years after the law was changed to remove the discriminatory provision for forced sterilization of people with disabilities — will not put an end to the issue for the estimated 21,000 people who had their right to have children violated under the government policy.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a statement that the government “sincerely reflects on and apologizes” for the victims’ suffering. But victims who are suing the government for damages and their supporters say they are not content with the legislation because it blurs the government’s responsibility for the policy that promoted the sterilization surgeries on people with disabilities, and that they will continue their legal battle. What is crucial in avoiding a repeat of the same kind of policy mistakes will be the effort to identify how and why such a policy was instituted and maintained for decades, and highlight the responsibility of each of the parties involved.

The Eugenic Protection Law was introduced with unanimous support of the Diet amid moves to restrict childbirth at a time of severe food shortages after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Of the roughly 21,000 people subjected to sterilization under the law, at least 16,500 are believed to have undergone the surgery without their consent. The old Health and Welfare Ministry reportedly sent notices to local governments stating that people with disabilities could even be deceived into receiving the sterilization surgeries. The policy under the 1948 law was kept intact until it was amended in 1996, even though by the 1980s questions were being raised within the government about the discriminatory nature of the policy.

Even after the 1996 amendment, no apology or redress was offered by the government to the victims. The government still maintains the position that the sterilization policy was implemented in accordance with the law — while the plaintiffs in the damages lawsuit insist that the eugenics law was against the Constitution. The plaintiffs accuse the government of negligence in its duty to provide relief to the victims for more than two decades after the law was effectively scrapped. The government denies that it bore the responsibility to take legislative steps to offer them relief, and argues that the suits be dropped on the grounds that the victims’ right to seek redress has expired.

That contrasts with the position taken by the government over its policy of segregating Hansen’s disease patients under the Leprosy Prevention Law, which was also scrapped in 1996. When the Kumamoto District Court in 2001 awarded state compensation to former Hansen’s disease patients, recognizing that the segregation policy was unconstitutional in that it violated the patients’ basic human rights, the government accepted the court decision and its legal responsibility for the policy, reaching a settlement with the former patients and offering them redress.

The legislation on relief to victims of forced sterilization under the Eugenic Protection Law was enacted without waiting for a judiciary decision on the lawsuits filed by the victims — the first of which is expected to be handed down by the Sendai District Court in late May. Given that many of the people subjected to the sterilization surgery are growing old, it can be deemed progress that the legislative step was taken to provide prompt relief, which will also be given to people who reportedly gave nominal consent to receiving the surgery, which was being promoted by the government. However, the government’s responsibility for the sterilization policy was left vague in the legislation — reportedly to avoid affecting court decisions on the pending lawsuits.

In his statement, Abe pledged that in order to never repeat what was done to the victims of forced sterilization, the government would make “utmost efforts” to “realize a society in which all people can coexist, and mutually respect each other, without being separated by disease or disability.” For that to happen, it is vital that the mistaken policy of the past is scrutinized by conducting a thorough examination of its history, and to make clear that the government denounces any policy based on eugenic beliefs.