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Japan's top medical group to admit responsibility, apologize over forced sterilization

A ledger about eugenics surgery, which was found in a cabinet of the Miyagi Prefectural Government's childrearing support division, is seen at the prefectural government building. (Mainichi/Hiroshi Endo)

The Japanese Medical Science Federation is set to admit the responsibility of medical scientists and academic associations over forced sterilization surgeries that were carried out in Japan based on the now-defunct eugenics protection law (1948-1996), and is poised to apologize to victims, it has been learned.

It is the first move of its kind by the federation comprising 136 medical associations in Japan. The federation's panel of outside experts investigated the matter and concluded that medical scientists and health care professionals played a role in enacting and administering the law and left the problems of the controversial law unaddressed for many years. The federation is planning to release the investigation report on June 25. It will also look into setting up a permanent ethics committee, among other measures.

In Japan, several academic societies in psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology and other medicine, as well as medical practitioners' organizations were involved in the promotion of forced sterilization. However, only some of those academic groups have begun to self-investigate their own roles in forced sterilization, leaving much of what actually happened under the ill-guided national policy unrevealed. The decision by the Japanese Medical Science Federation, the presiding body in Japan's medical world, to admit its responsibility and offer an apology to victims is likely to have an influence on its member associations.

The federation set up the expert panel comprising its directors and external experts in April 2019 and interviewed victims of compulsory sterilization and individuals associated with medical societies that were involved in such operations, among others. Among the things that the panel examined are situations surrounding the enactment and operation of the eugenics law and the process where damage from the law continued to spread without any measures being taken in the 1970s and onward, when other countries abolished their eugenics policies.

In the investigation report, the panel states, "It is deeply regrettable that medical scientists and health professionals were involved in the institution of the former eugenics law, played a role in its operation and left the problems of the law unaddressed even after medical ethics and human rights ideology prevailed." While the former eugenics law was revised in 1996 into the Maternal Health Act by removing the provision for forcible sterilization, the report states, "Deep remorse over not taking immediate action to provide relief to the victims of forced sterilization even after the legal amendment, and an expression of heartfelt apology to the victims and other parties concerned are called for."

The report attributed part of the cause of delays in legal revision and relief measures for victims to its own analysis that "Even while there were suggestions pointing to the problems (of the law) in some parts of the medical world, such voices remained within the realm of academia and were not large enough to reach out to society as a whole." The report also refers to issues including present-day prenatal diagnosis and genome editing, which are often associated with the concept of eugenics, and stresses, "It is important to examine them from various perspectives so they won't go in an unethical direction."

The panel's report proposes launching a new organization that examines medical and medicinal decisions across academic societies in order to prevent cases similar to forced sterilization from ever happening again in the future.

Established in 1902, the Japanese Medical Science Federation has a total of 1.03 million researchers and doctors belonging to its member organizations.

(Japanese original by Norikazu Chiba, Kyoto Bureau)

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