The Japanese government is set to conduct a nationwide survey into forced sterilization surgeries that were performed on people with intellectual disabilities, mental disorders and hereditary diseases under the now-defunct eugenics protection law. The government's move, though long overdue, can be recognized for its historical significance.
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According to records of the former Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of people who underwent forced sterilizations reached 16,475. However, documents on such surgeries remain for only 20 percent of the patients. It is presumed that in many cases, parties linked to those patients, such as their families and doctors, are already deceased.
It has been 22 years since the notorious eugenics law was abolished. Even if no surgery records remain, the government should extensively list up the people who may have undergone such operations and provide relief to them.
Forced sterilizations of people with disabilities have in the past been called into question time and again for human rights violations. However, the moves fell short of reaching a point of pressing the government for its responsibility over the issue and taking relief measures for those who were affected.
Earlier this year, the issue saw rapid progress after a woman in Miyagi Prefecture sued the government in January for damages over her forced sterilization, becoming the first person to have filed such a lawsuit, as well as following coverage of the coerced sterilization issue by the Mainichi Shimbun. Earlier this month, a suprapartisan group of legislators was formed to seek the submission of a lawmaker-initiated bill to provide redress for the victims.
However, there are high hurdles awaiting the victims, such as the 20-year statute of limitations for the right to seek damages under the Civil Code. It would also be difficult to corroborate the facts of forced sterilizations if relevant documents no longer exist, as well as to confirm whether patients had given prior consent to undergo such a surgery.
The Miyagi Prefectural Government is reportedly set to recognize the plaintiff's claim on the grounds that her surgery scar can be confirmed, that there are documents based on which her surgery can be presumed to have taken place, and that the woman's testimony is consistent.
Many of the victims have intellectual disabilities, difficulty in making judgments and communicating with others. Most of them may find it difficult to provide clear testimony. Even if a patient had agreed to sterilization, it is hard to tell how much they understood about the meaning of such a surgery before giving the nod to it. Records show that even a 9-year-old girl was subjected to such an operation under the former law.
It is thought that in many cases, it was the families of patients who took the initiative of taking them to medical institutions for sterilization operations. Behind this lies the fact that many families with disabled members experienced discrimination and prejudice from relatives and local communities. There are also a number of cases in which people with disabilities who were sexually assaulted were forced to have an abortion or undergo sterilization operations.
These victims have been placed in multiple layers of unreasonable circumstances and had no choice but to remain silent about their plight, only to be wrapped under the cloak of history.
Considering the aging of the victims, the planned nationwide survey should be carried out as swiftly as possible, and in a flexible manner covering their testimonies and circumstances, regardless of whether records remain about their sterilization surgeries.