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Japanese Medical Science Federation to investigate involvement in forced sterilizations

TOKYO -- The Japanese Medical Science Federation (JMSF) will set up an expert panel April 17 to investigate the involvement of its 132 member societies in forced sterilization surgeries under the now-defunct eugenic protection law (1948-1996).

Many medical societies were involved in the promotion of forced sterilizations, but self-investigations into the practice have been limited to a small portion of the organizations.

It is especially rare for the JMSF, the largest academic organization in the country in the medical field, to confront the past history of its member societies and medical scientists. The purpose of the investigation is to identify the factors that led to scientists and physicians at the time to promote forced sterilizations. Such information can be used as cautionary tales in setting up guidelines for modern medicine, in which it can be difficult to draw the line between eugenics and advanced medicine, like in the medical application of personal genomes.

The involvement of the JMSF in forced sterilizations has not been confirmed, but the participation of multiple JMSF member societies and health care provider organizations has.

Of these groups, the Japanese Society for Hygiene admitted its mistake last year. It retracted its proposal made in 1952 to the government to use forced sterilization operations as a means of population control, out of concern for what they saw as "adverse selection," in which the population of people with disabilities would overtake those without. Additionally, the Japanese Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, whose member psychiatrists submitted forced sterilization applications to prefectural eugenic protection examination panels, is also set to launch an investigation into its own past.

Meanwhile, however, obstetrics societies that took the initiative in getting the eugenics law passed in the legislature and actually carried out the sterilization surgeries have taken a passive stance toward investigations. In other countries, the practice of forced sterilizations was abolished by the 1970s. In Japan, however, it continued until 1996, which increased the number of victims and spread the extent of damage. The lack of action taken by academic societies despite doubts that were already being raised about the practice is being brought into question.

The JMSF's investigative panel will have a core membership of around 10 people, including Iekuni Ichikawa, a project professor at Shinshu University School of Medicine and chairman of the JMSF's Research Ethics Committee. It will comprise experts from the various societies that belong to the federation as well as experts from outside the federation.

The panel will take into consideration the investigations that have been carried out in other countries, and try to figure out why Japanese medical scientists became involved in the inhumane practice, and how such a thing could have been prevented. The findings will then be compiled into a report.

Multiple people on the JMSF board of directors have said that the fact that their predecessors committed human rights violations cannot be overlooked, and that to prevent such a thing from happening again, it is important to conduct an academic investigation and draw lessons from it.

Founded in 1902, the JMSF has over 1 million researchers and doctors in its member societies.

(Japanese original by Norikazu Chiba, Science & Environment News Department)

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