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Forced sterilization victims want gov't to wait for court ruling before extending relief

Members of the legal team for the plaintiffs and supporters walk toward the Sendai District Court in Aoba Ward, Sendai, on March 20, 2019. (Mainichi/Issei Takizawa)

TOKYO -- Uncertainty will grow over the prospect of settling disputes over forcible sterilization surgeries under the eugenic protection law (1948-1996) if a bill to extend relief to victims is enacted before the first court ruling on state redress suits by victims.

A damages suits trial launched by two women from Miyagi Prefecture who underwent forcible sterilization surgeries was concluded at the Sendai District Court on March 20. The court is scheduled to rule on the suits on May 28. It will be the first ruling on a series of state redress suits over forced sterilization. On the other hand, the Diet is aiming to enact the bill as early as April.

In contrast, the central government established a compensation system for former patients with Hansen's disease after the victims won their state redress suits.

If the government were to be ordered by the court to pay more compensation than provided for by the proposed legislation, the state might not accept the ruling. The plaintiffs in the series of lawsuits on sterilization surgeries are demanding 11 million to 38.5 million yen in damages from the state while the bill would provide only 3.2 million yen in a lump-sum payment to each victim.

A hearing on Feb. 8 focused on whether the 20-year statute of limitations had run out for demanding compensation for eugenic surgeries.

"Could the plaintiff have been able to sue the central government within 20 years from the operation?" Presiding Judge Motoyuki Nakashima asked one of the plaintiffs, a woman in her 60s.

"She was unable to file a lawsuit under the State Redress Act at a time when disabled people were unable to speak out," said the woman's elder sister-in-law. The sister spoke on behalf of the plaintiff who has severe intellectual disabilities.

The presiding judge asked the plaintiff the question to find out her true feelings about the key point of contention that could determine the fate of the trial.

The government was demanding that the court dismiss the suits on the grounds that the plaintiffs could have sued the government within 20 years after they underwent the surgeries. The government cites Article 724 of the Civil Code, which stipulates that the right to demand compensation ends 20 years after an illegal act, and claims that the plaintiffs have thus lost their chance for compensation under the State Redress Act that guarantees individuals' rights to demand compensation for illegal practices by the state and the Diet.

During the trial, the government appeared to avoid squarely facing the lawsuits. The state initially demanded that the suits be dismissed without specifying the reasons.

The plaintiffs pointed out that the government failed to take action to implement relief measures for victims of the forcible sterilizations even after the eugenic protection law was revised into the Maternal Health Act in 1996. In response, the state made a statement that could be interpreted to mean that victims who failed to sue the government much earlier under the State Redress Act were at fault.

In response to the plaintiffs' assertions that the old law violated their reproductive rights guaranteed by Article 13 of the Constitution, the government avoided clarifying its view on the matter saying it is not a key point of contention.

In an extremely rare move, the presiding judge declared that the court will not avoid making judgment on whether the law was unconstitutional. Still, the state did not change its position, and in-depth discussions on the unconstitutionality of the law were never held during the trial.

The legal team for the plaintiffs suspected that the government attempted to prolong the trial.

When the ruling and opposition blocs released the relief bill on March 14, Koji Niisato, head of the legal team, sarcastically said, "I didn't expect that the relief bill would be drafted this early."

The national government asked the court to continue the trial citing the expected enactment of the relief legislation, while the plaintiffs called for an early conclusion of the trial.

Hideo Inoue, professor emeritus of legislation on social security at Kanazawa University underscores the need for the government to reflect on and apologize for forcible sterilizations.

"What the victims want is sincere reflection from the state. The government should promptly apologize for forcible sterilization after a ruling is handed down," he said.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Endo, Sendai Bureau)

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