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Doctors open up on forced sterilization of patients under old eugenic law

An ob-gyn doctor in his 80s is seen during an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun while looking at documents on the guidelines for sterilization surgery, in Hokkaido on Feb. 20, 2018. (Mainichi)

Two doctors who were involved in forced sterilization under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law (1948-1996) have opened up to testify on what is seen as a dark side of Japanese history following a series of lawsuits that victims have filed against the state.

"Unlike today when there are support systems available, it was difficult for parents alone to take care of their children with disabilities, which sometimes led to dysfunction of families," an ob-gyn doctor in his 80s in Hokkaido told the Mainichi Shimbun during a recent interview, recalling the circumstances leading up to a spate of sterilization operations in the northernmost prefecture.

The doctor, who previously worked at a public hospital, performed a sterilization operation in 1967 on a woman aged about 20 after a prefectural screening panel approved a psychiatrist's request for such surgery. According to the doctor, the woman had a severe intellectual disability and hearing disorder. "She couldn't hear or write, making it difficult to confirm her will," he said.

Her parents, who had reportedly been acquainted with the doctor, requested that their daughter be sterilized, on the grounds that she was unable to deal with her periods and that she had had contact with men at a welfare facility she had just begun commuting to. Her sibling also had disabilities. The screening panel ended up giving her surgery the green light.

"No doctor would willingly perform sterilization," the doctor said, adding, "I assume (the authorities) took into consideration the feelings of parents who were worried about the futures of their children (with disabilities). At that time, it was fairly difficult for parents alone to look after their children if they were born with disabilities. I believe many ob-gyn doctors had no choice but to carry out such surgery upon the screening panel's decisions."

In a booklet produced in 1956, the Hokkaido Prefectural Government's sanitation bureau stated, "When a parent and a child both have (disabilities) and their relatives look after them, it inflicts a great burden on the family and on society." It went on to emphasize that the promotion of sterilization surgery "is a way out in responding to compelling challenges in pursuit of rebuilding a new Japan."

It wasn't until recently that the doctor learned that Hokkaido had seen 2,593 cases of forced sterilization performed -- the largest figure among all prefectures in Japan.

"I never expected the figure would be this high. ... I guess such a figure wouldn't come about unless they went out of their way to find people and perform surgeries on them," the physician said.

The doctor currently serves as the head of a support group for the disabled. "The reality of parents being deeply shocked when they find out their newborn children have disabilities remains unchanged today. I hope we will be able to achieve a society where disabilities are accepted as personal traits and those with disabilities can live with peace of mind," the doctor commented.

Yasuo Okada, 86, a psychiatrist in Tokyo's Suginami Ward who was involved in the filing of applications for sterilization surgery while he was working for a metropolitan hospital, commented, "There was this notion back then that people with disabilities could not live on without their families," suggesting that families were also the promoters of such surgeries.

"I suspect that there were many cases of shoddy screenings to that end. There is a move among Diet legislators to create a relief system for the victims, but I hope efforts to get to the bottom of the issue are not left behind as a result of hastily building such a system," he said, calling on the central government to conduct a nationwide fact-finding survey as swiftly as possible.

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