In Japan, these women want to make it easier to refuse motherhood

When Hisui Tatsuta was in middle school, her mother often joked that she couldn’t wait to see the faces of her future grandchildren. Ms. Tatsuta, now a 24-year-old model in Tokyo, hesitated when she thought she would one day have children.

As her body began to develop feminine features, Ms. Tatsuta went on a strict diet and exercise regimen to stave off the changes. She began to consider herself as no gender. “Being treated as a uterus that can give birth before being considered a human being, I don’t like this,” she said. Ultimately, she wants to be sterilized to eliminate any chance of pregnancy.

However, in Japan, women who want to undergo sterilization procedures such as tubal ligation or hysterectomy must meet conditions that are among the most dangerous in the world. They must have children and prove that the pregnancy will endanger their health and must have the consent of their spouse. That makes it difficult for many women to have such surgeries, and almost impossible for single, childless women like Ms. Tatsuta.

Now, she and four other women are suing the Japanese government, arguing that a decades-old law called the Mothers’ Protection Act violates their constitutional rights to equality and self-determination. them and should be cancelled.

During a hearing at the Tokyo District Court last week, Michiko Kameishi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, described the law as “extremely paternalistic” and said it “assumes that we consider women’s bodies female is the body born to become a mother. ”

Ms. Kameishi told the three-judge panel of two men and one woman that the conditions for voluntary sterilization were a relic of another era and that the plaintiffs wanted to take “an essential step toward living the lives they want.” selected”.

Japan lags behind other developed countries on reproductive rights beyond sterilization. Neither birth control pills nor intrauterine devices are covered by national health insurance, and women seeking abortion must get their partner’s consent. According to a survey by the Japan Family Planning Association, the most popular form of birth control in Japan is condoms. Less than 5% of women use birth control pills as their primary method of birth control.

Experts say the plaintiffs in the sterilization case, who are also seeking damages of 1 million yen (about $6,400) each with interest, face significant hurdles. They are promoting the right to sterilization at the same time the government is trying to improve Japan’s health. The birth rate has fallen to a record low.

“For women who can have children to not give birth, it is considered a step backward for society,” said Yoko Matsubara, a bioethics professor at Ritsumeikan University. “So it may be difficult to get support” for the lawsuit.

Last week, as five female plaintiffs sat across from four male government representatives in the courtroom, Miri Sakai, 24, a sociology graduate student, testified that she did not care about the sexual or romantic relationships or having children.

In spite of Women have made some progress in the workplace In Japan, there is a cultural expectation of family responsibilities. Ms. Sakai said: “The lifestyle of not getting married and not having children is still rejected by society.

“Having children for the country is natural, right?” she asked. “Are women who don’t have children themselves useless to society?”

In Japan, sterilization is a particularly sensitive issue because of the government’s history of sterilization force the procedure for people with mental illness or intellectual or physical disabilities.

Sterilization was practiced for decades under a 1948 measure known as the Eugenics Protection Act. It was amended and renamed the Maternal Protection Act in 1996 to remove the eugenics provision, but lawmakers retained strict requirements for women seeking abortion or sterilization. . Despite pressure from advocacy groups and women’s rights activists, the law has remained unchanged since its 1996 revision.

In principle, the law also affects men who want a vasectomy. They must have their spouse’s consent as well as prove that they are the father and that their partner would be at medical risk during the pregnancy.

However, in reality, experts say there are more clinics in Japan that offer vasectomy services than sterilization for women.

According to government data, doctors performed 5,130 sterilizations on both men and women in 2021, the last year for which statistics are available. No incidents between the sexes are available.

In a statement, the Department of Children and Families, which implements regulations under the Maternal Protection Act, said it could not comment on the litigation.

Kazane Kajiya, 27, testified last week that her desire to not have children was “an innate part of my worth.”

“It’s because these feelings can’t be changed that I just want to live, relieving as much of the discomfort and psychological suffering I feel about my body as possible,” she said.

In an interview before the hearing, Ms. Kajiya, an interpreter, said her not wanting to have children was related to broader feminist views. From a very young age, she said, “I witnessed male dominance throughout the country and throughout society.”

At one point, Ms. Kajiya, who was married, considered whether she was really a transgender man. But she decided that she was “totally fine being a woman and I liked it. I just don’t like fertility allowing me to have children with men.”

The entrenched rules Japanese Rightlean Yukako Ohashi, a writer and member of the Women’s Network for Reproductive Freedom, said the Liberal Democratic Party, along with the country’s deeply rooted traditional family values, has blocked progress on gender equality. reproductive rights.

Ms. Ohashi said in a video interview that the name of the Mothers’ Protection Act is revealing. “Women who are about to become mothers will be protected,” she said. “But women who are not mothers are not respected. That is Japanese society.”

Even in the United States, where any woman 21 years of age or older is legally entitled to sterilization, some obstetricians and gynecologists advice Their patients object to the procedures, especially when women do no children yet.

Similarly, in Japan, the medical profession “still has a very patriarchal mindset,” said Lisa C. Ikemoto, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. Doctors “act as a cartel to maintain certain social norms.”

Women themselves often hesitate to meet society’s expectations because of the heavy pressure to conform.

“Many people feel that trying to change the status quo is selfish,” Ms. Tatsuta, the model and plaintiff, said just before last week’s hearing. But when it comes to fighting for her right to choose her body, she says, “I want people to be angry.”


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