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In the name of science: Fetus aborted under eugenics law became research specimen

Child psychiatrist Ken Takaoka, who reported the case of "human experimentation" on a fetus aborted under the eugenic protection law to the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, looks over the society's investigative report, in the city of Gifu, on April 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

GIFU -- In 1984, a whistleblower reported to the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology that in the same year, doctors at Gifu University Hospital had dissected a fetus aborted under the eugenics protection law (1948-1996) for research purposes and examined its brain. The woman had wanted to have the baby, and had not consented to the dissection. The incident was criticized as a "human experiment."

"Even now, I don't believe that we did anything wrong," the now 62-year-old attending physician in the case told the Mainichi Shimbun. "The woman agreed to the abortion. Only a pathological autopsy was performed on the fetus," said the former assistant at Gifu University Hospital's psychiatry department. "My actions and the current issues surrounding forced sterilization surgeries are completely different."

In response to the whistleblower's report, the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology embarked on an investigation. According to a report complied two years later, a 34-year-old woman diagnosed with schizophrenia had been involuntarily admitted to a hospital in Gifu Prefecture when her symptoms worsened. There, it was found that she was over 16-weeks pregnant. She was then transferred to Gifu University Hospital, where she underwent an abortion via labor-inducing drugs. Immediately after the three-day procedure, doctors at the institution's psychiatry department and pathology division carried out the dissection and examined the brain of the fetus.

Records of the woman saying she wanted to deliver the baby surfaced during the society's investigation. "But I want to have the child," "I get along well with my husband, so why do I have to have an abortion?" "I asked someone, and they said that they gave birth while taking psychiatric medication" -- the pained cries of the mother remained in the pages of nurses' notes. However, the attending physician maintains that he explained to the woman that her family and her common-law husband wanted her to have the abortion, and he got her consent.

After completing the investigation, the psychiatry and neurology society concluded from the series of events connected to her hospital transfer and other factors that she had been "forced to consent after being hospitalized against her will." It also pointed out that the dissection of the fetus was for the purpose of "proving the hypothesis that there was a high concentration of psychoactive drugs in the brain of the fetus whose mother was consuming the medicine during pregnancy." There had been no previous tests on animals, and the society condemned the act as "clearly a means for research" and "human experimentation."

"They used the power relationship between doctor and patient in order to perform the abortion," said 73-year-old psychiatrist Yukimitsu Hoshino, who was the director of the psychiatry and neurology society at the time and was in charge of the investigation. The child psychiatrist Ken Takaoka, 64, the one who reported the events, also lamented, "The attending physician was also a researcher, and he put the merit of the experiment before the wishes of his patient."

Still, the attending physician and a university instructor who led the experiment, now 74, both still contest the investigation as "carried out with the conclusion already decided and we were framed." They argued that tension inside the medical school over the election of professors was behind the information leak.

"The woman was strapped to the bed at all times. When she said, 'I want to give birth,' she meant that she wanted to escape the pain," the attending doctor claimed. However, he added, "If it were me now, maybe I would have made a different decision. I should have persuaded the parents and her husband to realize her wish to give birth to the child."

(Japanese original by Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department, and Asako Kamihigashi, Lifestyle News Department)

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