In Japan, more and more women are giving up on becoming mothers

When Hisamizu Tatsuta was in middle school, her mother would often joke that she couldn’t wait to see the faces of her future grandchildren. Now 24 and a model in Tokyo, Tatsuta balked at the idea that she would one day have children.

As Tatsuta began to notice more feminine features on her body, she began to go on extreme diets and exercise routines to stave off the changes, and began to see herself as genderless. “I didn’t want to be seen as a uterus capable of giving birth before being seen as a human being,” she says. Eventually, she wants to be sterilized to eliminate the possibility of pregnancy.

But in Japan, women who undergo sterilization procedures such as tubal ligation and hysterectomy must meet some of the world’s strictest requirements. They must prove that they already have children, that pregnancy would pose a risk to their health, and get their spouse’s consent. This makes it difficult for many women to undergo such procedures, and nearly impossible for single, childless women like Tatsuta.

Now she and four other women have filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government, arguing that the decades-old Maternal Protection Law violates their constitutional rights to equality and self-determination and should be repealed.

At a hearing in Tokyo District Court last week, plaintiffs’ lawyer Michiko Kameishi described the law as “excessively patriarchal” and said it was “based on the premise that we believe a woman’s body is a body that is destined to become a mother.”

Kameishi told a three-judge panel of two men and one woman that voluntary sterilization requirements were a thing of the past and that the plaintiffs wanted to take “an essential step in living the life they choose.”

Japan lags behind other developed countries in reproductive rights beyond sterilization. Neither oral contraceptives nor intrauterine devices are covered by national health insurance, and women seeking abortions must obtain their partner’s consent. According to a survey by the Japan Family Planning Association, the most common method of contraception in Japan is condoms. Fewer than 5% of women use contraceptives as their primary means of preventing pregnancy.

The plaintiffs in the sterilization lawsuits are seeking 1 million yen (about $6,400) in damages each, but face significant hurdles, experts say. They are seeking the right to be sterilized at the same time the government is trying to expand sterilization rights in Japan. The birth rate has fallen to a record low.

“It’s seen as a social step backwards when women who are able to have children stop having children,” said Yoko Matsubara, a professor of bioethics at Ritsumeikan University. “So it may be difficult to gain support for the lawsuit.”

As the five female plaintiffs sat in court last week across from four male government representatives, Miri Sakai, a 24-year-old sociology graduate student, testified that she had no interest in sexual or romantic relationships or having children.

Although Japan has made some progress in empowering women in the workplace, cultural expectations regarding responsibilities at home remain unchanged. “The lifestyle of not marrying and not having children is still rejected by society,” Sakai said.

“Is it natural to give birth to children for the sake of one’s country?” she asked. “Are women who don’t have children unnecessary to society?”

Sterilization is a particularly sensitive issue in Japan because of the country’s history of forced sterilization of people with mental illnesses and intellectual and physical disabilities.

Sterilizations have been carried out for decades under a law that was first enacted in 1948 as the Eugenic Protection Law. It was amended in 1996 to remove the eugenic clause and renamed the Maternal Protection Law, but lawmakers maintained strict requirements for women seeking abortions and sterilization. Despite pressure from advocacy groups and women’s rights activists, the law has remained unchanged since the 1996 amendment.

In principle, the law would also apply to men seeking vasectomies: they would need their spouse’s consent and would need to prove that they are already fathers and that the pregnancy would put their partner at medical risk.

But experts say that in reality, there are many more clinics in Japan offering vasectomies to women than sterilization procedures.

According to government data, doctors performed 5,130 sterilization surgeries on men and women in 2021, the last year for which statistics are available. The breakdown by gender is unclear.

The Department of Children and Families, which enforces regulations under the Maternal Defense Act, said in a statement that it could not comment on litigation.

Kazune Kajitani, 27, testified last week that her desire not to have children is “part of my innate values.”

“I can’t change these feelings, so I just want to live with the discomfort and mental pain I feel in my body as little as possible,” she said.

In an interview before the hearing, Kajitani, the interpreter, said her aversion to having children was linked to her broader feminist views: “From an early age, I have witnessed male-dominated situations throughout the country and society at large,” she said.

Kajitani, who is married, once wondered if he was really a transgender man, but then he decided, “I have no reservations about being a woman, and I like being a woman. But I don’t like the idea of ​​having the reproductive ability to have children with a man.”

Yukako Ohashi, a writer and member of the Women’s Network for Reproductive Freedom, said Japan’s entrenched government by its right-wing Liberal Democratic Party and the country’s deeply rooted traditional family values ​​are hindering progress on reproductive rights.

In a video interview, Ohashi said the name of the Maternal Protection Act is suggestive: “Women who will become mothers should be protected. But women who do not become mothers are not respected. That is Japanese society.”

Even in the United States, where any woman over the age of 21 can receive sterilization surgery, some obstetricians and gynecologists advice Patients are against surgery, especially women. No children yet.

Similarly, in Japan, the medical industry “remains very patriarchal in its mindset,” says Lisa C. Ikemoto, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. “Doctors function like a cartel to maintain certain social norms.”

Women themselves are often hesitant to go against societal expectations due to strong peer pressure.

“A lot of people feel that trying to change the status quo is selfish,” model and plaintiff Tatsuta said shortly before her trial last week. But when it comes to fighting for the right to make choices about one’s own body, she said, “I want people to be angry.”

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