The Sendai District Court ruling on a damages suit filed by victims of forced sterilization under the old Eugenics Protection Law has determined that the law, which authorized sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses and hereditary disorders to stop them from giving birth to “inferior offspring,” was unconstitutional because it violated their rights to have children and pursue happiness. To ensure that similar policy mistakes are never repeated, the decision should be taken seriously, with the government and lawmakers identifying what happened under the law and who was responsible for the grave damage done to the victims.

The court, however, turned down the plaintiffs’ demand for state compensation for their suffering, on the grounds that the 20-year statute of limitations to seek redress for the forced sterilization — which took place more than 40 years ago — had been reached. It is regrettable that the victims of forced sterilization under the eugenics policy are denied judiciary relief after being left unattended for decades — and more than 20 years after the eugenics law was finally amended in 1996 to scrap its discriminatory provisions authorizing forced sterilization on the grounds of disabilities. The plaintiffs — the first to get a court decision among a series of similar lawsuits filed across the country — have said they will appeal the ruling, and rulings by other district courts will follow. The court battle on the issue will continue.

The Eugenics Protection Law was enacted by the Diet in 1948 in response to the serious food shortage and sharp population increase after the end of World War II. Under the law, the government promoted sterilization among people with disabilities and hereditary diseases even without their consent or that of their family members. In a 1949 directive, the old Health and Welfare Ministry said it was permissible to perform the surgical procedure on those people by either deceiving, physically restraining or anesthetizing them. Until the law was changed in 1996, about 25,000 people underwent sterilization — at least 16,500 of them without consent.

The Sendai ruling highlights the gravity of the harm done to the victims. The court noted that the right to decide whether to have children relates to our foundation of life as humans and is a basic individual right guaranteed under the Constitution, and that sterilization under the eugenics law unilaterally deprived the victims of this right on irrational grounds and trampled on their dignity as individuals.

Even after the eugenics law was amended in 1996, the victims were provided with no compensation or apology for their suffering. Only after one of the two plaintiffs in the Sendai case — women from Miyagi Prefecture in their 60s and 70s — filed the first lawsuit in January 2018 and then were joined by 19 others in the legal action, a supra-partisan group of lawmakers drafted relief measures for the victims.

Legislation based on the draft was quickly enacted in the Diet last month — before the court rulings were due on any of the damages suits — provides a uniform lump sum payment of ¥3.2 million for each of the victims, including those who gave nominal consent to the sterilization procedures. But while the legislation and a statement by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned remorse and apology for the victims, the state’s responsibility over the forced sterilization policy and the victims’ plight was left vague — partly to avoid compromising the government’s position in the lawsuits. As the amount of the lump sum payment was also far smaller than the damages they sought in court, the plaintiffs in the suits were unhappy with the legislation and vowed to pursue their court battle — while other victims have started applying for the payment under the legislation.

The court’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ demand for redress due to the statue of limitations may be up to debate — since there is room for different interpretations of when the clock starts running on the 20-year time limit to seek damages. A 2001 Kumamoto District Court ruling that awarded damages to former Hansen’s disease patients over past government policy mandating their segregation considered the period to start in 1996, when the former Leprosy Prevention Law that authorized the segregation was scrapped. The Sendai court ruling determined that it was “practically difficult” for the plaintiffs to seek damages within 20 years of their sterilization — since the procedures were performed lawfully under government policy when the eugenics law was still in place and because it was effectively hard for them to find evidence when the records of many sterilizations had been lost. It is a point that may be worth considering in a higher court deliberation on the case and in the district court processes in other related cases.

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