Women’s health campaigners have urged Japan’s government to amend a law that forces married women to seek consent from their husbands before they can have an abortion.
Japan is one of only 11 countries that require third-party consent for abortions, despite calls to end the practice by the World Health Organization and other groups.
Although the 1948 law makes exceptions in some cases, including rape or when the mother’s health is in danger, the restrictions amount to a “sexual assault” on women by the Japanese state, according to Kazane Kajiya, an abortion rights and contraception access activist.
Speaking on the eve of International Safe Abortion Day, Kajiya said the maternal health act was designed to ensure that women continued to perform their traditional role as mothers.
“Women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies, and denying them that right amounts to sexual abuse by the nation,” she told reporters on Monday.
“Japan doesn’t protect women, but tries to ‘protect’ their bodies as public property and future incubators. We are treated as mothers and future mothers. We want the human right to access contraception and abortion without anyone else’s approval. But Japan treats our bodies as its national property.”
Women who have an abortion without consent – by forging their husband’s signature or buying illegal abortion pills online – face up to a year in prison.
“When it comes to women making decisions about their own bodies, men’s opinions carry more weight than women’s happiness, health, and even their lives,” said Kajiya, who has launched a petition demanding a change to the law.
Campaigners say the requirement underlines Japan’s outdated attitude towards women’s reproductive health. The morning-after pill is available only with a doctor’s prescription, and the health ministry has said only that it will “consider” easing regulations to allow the emergency birth control to be sold over the counter, as it is in dozens of other countries.
The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology has called for the maternal health law to be changed to allow women to seek abortion without third-party consent during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The WHO and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have recommended that Japan abolish the requirement.
Kajiya said that although the law applied mostly to married women, it had been used to force some to go through with a pregnancy regardless of their marital status, including the victims of abuse and sexual assault.
Abortions are legal in Japan, with about 160,000 reported in the year up to March 2019, including 13,588 involving women under the age of 20, according to the health ministry.
Abortion pills are illegal, however. Pressure is mounting on Japan’s health authorities to approve the oral drug, which is recommended by the WHO, but its use could also require third-party consent, Kajiya said.
“Why do women who are capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for their lives need men’s permission to take an extremely safe medicine?” Kajiya said. “We are treated like minors, because we are not allowed to make decisions about our own bodies. It means our bodies will never truly be ours.”