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Court fails to recognize Diet neglected duty over relief to sterilized eugenics victims

A lawyer shows off a banner saying, "Unjust ruling," in front of the Sendai District Court in Sendai's Aoba Ward on May 28, 2019, after the court dismissed a damages suit by two victims of forced sterilization. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)

The Sendai District Court stopped short of recognizing the Diet neglected to take legislative action to extend relief to people who were forcibly sterilized under the now-defunct Eugenic Protection Law while clearly recognizing that the law was unconstitutional.

While the government, which was sued by the victims, is relieved because its claim has been largely upheld, plaintiffs are poised to demand an apology from the state citing the court's clear recognition that the law (1948-1996) violated the supreme law.

The ruling on May 28 on two women living in Miyagi Prefecture recognized that the forcible sterilization of the plaintiffs violated their human rights and ruled that the law constituted a violation of Article 13 of the Constitution that guarantees the right to pursue happiness.

Nevertheless, the court failed to rule whether the Diet broke the law by neglecting to take legislative measures to extend relief to victims, and dismissed the plaintiffs' demand for a total of 71.5 million yen in damages.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs in their 60s and 70s claimed that the eugenic law violated their reproductive health rights.

Article 13 of the supreme law explicitly guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness. Courts have interpreted this clause in response to changes in society and the needs of the times to derive new rights, such as one to protect one's moral rights and privacy, from the clause.

In the latest ruling, the district court pointed out, "Giving birth to and bringing up children can be a source of happiness. The matter is related to the foundation for living while maintaining one's dignity and is part of fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution."

Noting that those who underwent sterilization surgeries have been suffering both physical and mental pain throughout their lives, the court pointed out that the degree of human rights violations caused by such operations is extreme.

The court then asserted that people can legally demand compensation in lawsuits based on reproductive health rights.

The district court then considered whether the fact that the Diet did not take legislative action to implement relief measures for victims constitutes the legislative branch's negligence of its duty to enact necessary legislation and caused damage to members of the public as a result.

The two plaintiffs and their lawyers argued that the Diet neglected to enact laws to provide relief to those who underwent forcible sterilization surgeries and claimed that the state is obligated to compensate them under the State Redress Act.

Previously, courts used to limit their recognition of the state's responsibility to compensate for the Diet's negligence to take legislative action to exceptional cases that cannot be easily foreseen.

However, courts recently opened the way for compensation payments in cases where it is recognized that the degree of the Diet's negligence to take legislative action is extremely serious.

In 2001, the Kumamoto District Court ruled that the government's policy of segregating patients with Hansen's disease, or leprosy, from society and forcibly placing them in sanatoriums was unconstitutional and recognized that the Diet neglected its duty to take legislative action to rectify the policy.

In the latest ruling, the Sendai court acknowledged that it is necessary to enact legislation to open the way for those who underwent sterilization surgeries under the eugenic protection law to demand compensation from the government. The ruling went on to point to the possibility that victims hesitated to come forward and complain about their damage because the concept of eugenics persisted among members of the public because of the now-defunct law.

However, the district court pointed out that no in-depth legal debate on reproductive health rights has been held and no legal judgment has been made over the constitutionality of the eugenic protection law. It then dismissed the suit saying it was not clear in the eyes of the public that it was indispensable for the Diet to take legislative measures.

Commenting on the ruling, a judge who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "Since the court admitted that there were exceptional circumstances that prevented the plaintiffs from exercising their rights, there may have been room for considering ways to extend relief to the plaintiffs."

A total of 20 people have filed lawsuits in seven district courts across Japan demanding compensation for the treatment they suffered under the law, which targeted individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses or so-called hereditary diseases. The latest decision in the Sendai court was the first ruling in these cases.

However, since the trial of this suit was concluded in March before the Diet enacted a law on relief measures for victims, the ruling does not evaluate this legislative measure. In the other relevant lawsuits, whether the government has solved the problem by enacting the law will emerge as an additional point of contention.

The relief law was drawn up based on the assumption that the defunct eugenic protection law was constitutional.

Some judges point to the possibility that courts can make judicial rulings on other relevant suits that are different from the latest one.

Despite the ruling that clearly declared the old law was unconstitutional, legislators who sponsored the bill on relief measures say they have no intention of reviewing the legislation.

Under the law, the government is supposed to pay a uniform 3.2 million yen as a lump-sum payment to each of the victims.

A lawmaker from the ruling bloc said, "We have no intention of reviewing it," noting that rulings on the other relevant suits have not yet been handed down.

Mizuho Fukushima, a Social Democratic Party member of the House of Councillors who served as secretary-general of a non-partisan parliamentary league that sponsored the bill, also suggested that the legislature should have no plan to change the law.

While saying that she personally found the ruling regrettable, she pointed out that the law "was unanimously approved."

(Japanese original by Akira Hattori, City News Department; Ryosuke Abe, Lifestyle and Medical News Department; Katsuya Takahashi, Political News Department; and Ayumu Iwasaki, Aomori Bureau)

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