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Switched at birth: Tokyo man longs to meet parents, hospital rejects info disclosure

The man switched at birth 51 years ago at Juntendo University Hospital recounts his story while looking at his maternal and child heath handbook, which each mother and child receives in Japan, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, on April 13, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- "I just want to meet my birth parents and find out who I am," a man who was taken home as an infant by the wrong family 51 years ago from Juntendo University Hospital in Bunkyo Ward here told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    The hospital has admitted to the mix-up and apologized to the man, but refused to provide him information about his birth parents because it would "disrupt the tranquil life of the other party." There are no rules or laws in Japan in place for such situations, and the man's right to the information is looking to spark debate.

    In a Tokyo cafe in November 2015, the man sat down with his mother in her 70s, and she revealed the events of half a century earlier with a solemn expression: "I think you might have been switched at the hospital." While the man was overcome with shock, she is said to have continued, "I wasn't sure if I should tell you or not, but I wanted to let you know before I die."

    His mother explained that during a medical exam when he entered elementary school, it was found that the man's blood type was A. Both parents were type B, so there was no way that they could have had a child with a different blood type. Even though his mother requested the hospital investigate, it refused, and suspecting that she had an affair, the man's father left the family behind.

    However, he grew up knowing none of this. The family's expenses were always tight, and from the time that he was in junior high school, the man delivered newspapers to supplement the budget. His stepfather said he had no money, so the man gave up on receiving a high school education. "If there had been no switch at birth, this all would have ended up without suffering so much," he lamented.

    After his mother's confession, the man took a DNA test in December 2015. The results concluded that there was a zero percent chance that his mother was related to him by blood. When presented with this evidence, the hospital finally admitted the mistake and paid a settlement. Still, it refused his wish to meet his biological parents.

    It was only in April this year that Juntendo University Hospital made the case public on its official website. The statement explained that at that time, the bodies of newborn babies were washed before the name of the mother was written on the bottom of their foot for identification, and there is a possibility that the switch happened at that stage of the process. While the hospital had narrowed down the other family caught up in the exchange, due to not wanting "to disrupt the peaceful life of the other family," the institution decided not to inform the other family of the mix-up. The hospital did not respond to a Mainichi Shimbun request for comment.

    Cases of babies being switched at birth in medical institutions are not completely unheard of in Japan. In a 1973 research paper compiled by a professor at Tohoku University in the midst of the country's second baby boom, there were a total of 32 cases that were uncovered between 1957 and 1971. With the lowering birthrate and the strengthening of hospital policies, such mistakes have been almost completely eliminated, but when past incidents come to light, the cases sometimes turn into conflicts.

    With advancements in assisted reproductive technology, there have been movements aiming to legalize a child's "right to know their origin," but in cases of switched infants, there is a possibility that the biological parents are unaware that the swap has taken place, so the issue doesn't have such a simple solution.

    Masayuki Tanamura, professor of family law at Waseda University, pointed out, "There is a possibility for the right to know your parentage to be recognized under the medical service contract," adding that the hospital "should take the responsibility of alerting the other party and paying compensation."

    On the other hand, one obstetrician at a Tokyo hospital said, while "the hospital should have admitted its error and sincerely responded to the matter 40 years ago when the mother requested an investigation," when it came to the disclosure now, "The information of the other mother cannot be released without her consent, and in order to get her consent, the truth must be revealed, which runs the risk of breaking a family apart."

    Still, each time the man sees parents with their children, he can't help but wonder what his own parents are like. Last year, when he saw the movie "Like Father, Like Son" about a father dealing with infants being switched at birth, he couldn't hold back his tears. He could only imagine the feelings of his mother, who had dutifully raised him.

    "Out of concern for me, she won't really say it, but I know that deep down, she wants to meet her real son," he said of his mother. "I want to give her the chance to meet him while she's still alive."

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Harada and Miyuki Fujisawa, Medical Welfare News Department)

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