Baby tragedy in Japan highlights reproductive rights concerns Baby tragedy in Japan highlights reproductive rights concerns
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Baby tragedy in Japan highlights reproductive rights concerns

    NHK World
    Correspondent
    A court case over the death of a newborn baby has thrown the spotlight on reproductive rights in Japan and the accessibility of support services. A 21-year-old woman was handed a suspended prison sentence last month for abandoning the infant she delivered in a public toilet.

    The case was heard in the Okazaki branch of the Nagoya District Court. The woman abandoned her baby boy in the city of Nishio, Aichi Prefecture, in June 2020. The tragedy appears to have partly stemmed from confusion over Japanese abortion laws.

    In 2013, the welfare ministry presented its view that abortions are not subject to mutual consent if a couple is unmarried. However, it is still required by some hospitals and doctors.

    At her trial, the woman said she had sought an abortion, but a number of hospitals would not carry out the procedure without a letter agreeing to it from her boyfriend, with whom she had lost contact.

    The case has prompted one social affairs expert to speak out about the problems facing women in similar predicaments.

    “It’s understandable that the father should also have a say in what happens to a newborn baby,” says Shirai Chiaki, a professor at Shizuoka University. “But I also think it’s a problem if women cannot decide by themselves about whether to continue with a pregnancy.”

    Shirai points out that the requirement for mutual consent is uncommon around the world. “It strips away a woman’s ability to deal with her physical and mental wellbeing, and even make decisions about her own life.”

    At the trial, the woman said that her baby would not have died if she had been able to talk to someone about her pregnancy before giving birth.

    Welfare ministry statistics show that 395 infants less than 12 months old died as a result of child abuse between 2003 and 2018. The figure represents almost half of all child abuse fatalities. Shirai says a research points to panicked decision-making among young women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. “I think a fundamental factor is the lack of a support system,” she says.

    The professor says harsh judgements can make the problems worse: “I understand why people criticize young mothers who commit child abuse,” she says, adding punishment is not the solution. “Women should be able to choose not to give birth, to raise their baby together with other people, or to have them raised entirely by others. We need a system in which women feel they aren’t forced to go it alone.”

    Shirai says more can be done to prevent unwanted pregnancies through low-cost and easily accessible contraception. The “morning after” pill is prescription-only in Japan, although the government is discussing whether to change that.

    Shirai says Japanese society needs to recognize that the risks and burdens of unplanned pregnancies will always lie with women more than men. “Whatever people do – be it work, study or give birth – I hope they can choose to do it freely.”

    Watch video: 03:35