Abortion in Japan
Abortion in Japan is available to women in limited circumstances, including endangerment of their health or economic hardship. Chapter XXIX of the Penal Code of Japan makes abortion de jure illegal in the country, but exceptions to the law are broad enough that it is widely accepted and practiced. Meanwhile, the Maternal Health Protection Law allows approved doctors to practice abortion with the consent of the mother and her spouse, if the pregnancy has resulted from rape, or if the continuation of the pregnancy may severely endanger the maternal health because of physical reasons or economic reasons. Anyone trying to practice abortion without the consent of the woman will also be punished, including the doctors.
No abortifacient has been approved in Japan. Approved doctors, however, can choose to use imported abortifacient under the same terms above. Any other people who abort the fetus using abortifacient will be also punished.
In 1842, the Shogunate in Japan banned induced abortion in Edo, but the law did not affect the rest of the country until 1869, when abortion was banned nationwide. However, the crime was rarely punished unless the conception was a result of adultery or the woman died as a result of the abortion procedure.
According to the scholar Tiana Norgern, the abortion policy under the Meiji government was similar to that of the Edo period, and was fueled by the belief that a large population would yield more military and political influence on the international stage. In 1868, the emperor banned midwives from performing abortions, and in 1880, Japan's first penal code declared abortion a crime. The punishments for abortion grew more severe in 1907 when the penal code revised: women could be incarcerated for up to a year for having an abortion; practitioners could be jailed for up to seven. The Criminal Abortion Law of 1907 is still technically in effect today, but other legislation has overridden its effects.
In 1923, doctors were granted legal permission to perform emergency abortions to save the mother's life; abortions performed under different, less life-threatening circumstances were still prosecuted. In 1931, the Alliance for Reform of the Anti-Abortion Law (Datai Hō Kaisei Kiseikai) was formed by Abe Isoo and argued that "it is a woman's right not to bear a child she does not want, and abortion is an exercise of this right". This organization believed that abortion should be made legal in circumstances in which there was a high chance of genetic disorder; in which a woman was poor, on public assistance, or divorced; in which it endangered the woman's health; and in which the pregnancy was a result of rape. In 1934, the Fifth All-Japan Women's Suffrage Congress wrote up resolutions calling for the legalization of abortion as well as contraception. This did not result in any immediate reaction from the government at the time, but after the war, these resolutions were consulted when drafting legislation legalizing abortion.
In 1940, the National Eugenic Law stopped short of explicitly calling abortion legal by outlining a set of procedures a doctor had to follow in order to perform an abortion; these procedures included getting second opinions and submitting reports, though these could be ignored when it was an emergency. This was a daunting and complicated process that many physicians did not want to deal with, and some sources attribute the fall in abortion rate between 1941 and 1944 from 18,000 to 1,800 to this legislation.
After World War II, Japan found itself in a population crisis. In 1946, 10 million people were declared at risk of starvation, and between the years 1945 and 1950, the population increased by 11 million. In 1948, Japan legalized abortion under special circumstances. Eugenic Protection Law of 1948, made Japan one of the first countries to legalize induced abortion. This law was revised as the Maternal Body Protection Law in 1996.
Currently, abortion is widely accepted in Japan. According to a 1998 survey, 79 percent of unmarried and 85 percent of married women approved of abortion. According to researchers at Osaka University in 2001, 341,588 legal abortions were carried out in Japan, a 2.5 percent increase from 1998 to 2001. However, in 2007 the figure had decreased to around 256,000.
Abortion statistics showed that the abortion rate (the number of cases of induced abortions per 1,000 women per year) increased for women younger than 20 from 1975 to 1995. The abortion ratio (number of cases per 1,000 live births) remained the highest amongst women aged 40–44. An increase in the abortion ratio was seen in the two youngest groups (younger than 20 and 20-24), especially among those who were born after 1955. The proportion of abortions that were experienced by women younger than 25 increased from 18 percent between 1976 and 1980 to 30 percent between 1991 and 1995, and a slight increase was also observed among women aged 40–44.
Overall, in 1995 the total number of abortions reported was 343,024, representing a 49 percent decrease from the number reported for 1975. The overall abortion rate changed from 22 to 11 abortions per 1,000 women in 1975 and 1995, respectively; and the overall abortion ratio changed from 353 to 289 abortions per 1,000 live births in the same 20-year period. In more than 99 percent of cases, the reason reported for performing an abortion was to protect the woman’s health; this percentage remained constant during 1975-95.
The official Japanese government statistics on abortion however can not be considered as very accurate since physicians tend to underreport the number of abortions they perform as a way of avoiding income tax payments (Coleman 1991) and because of social pressures to protect women’s confidentiality, especially that of young women who are junior high or high school students.
A scenario study was conducted to assess the extent to which the unintended pregnancy rate in Japan, where oral contraceptives (OC) have not been legalized for family planning purposes and couples rely mainly on condoms, might change if more women were to use OC. Because current rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion in Japan are not known, data provided by the 1994 Japanese National Survey on Family Planning were used to construct scenarios for national contraceptive use. Annual failure rates of contraceptive methods and nonuse were applied to the contraceptive use scenarios, to obtain estimates of the annual number of contraceptive failure-related pregnancies. Subsequently, contraceptive practice situations assuming higher OC use rates were defined, and the associated change in the number of contraceptive failure-related pregnancies was estimated for each situation. It emerged that OC use rates of 15% decreased the expected number of unintended pregnancies by 13%–17%, whereas use rates of 25% resulted in decreases of 22%–29% and use rates of 50% in decreases of 45%–58%. The findings were reasonably robust to variation in the assumptions that were made. In conclusion, each theoretical percentage increase in the OC use rate in Japan was found to lead to a roughly equivalent percentage decrease in the number of unintended pregnancies.
- Norgren, Tiana. Abortion before Birth Control: The Politics of Reproduction in Postwar Japan Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Obayashi, M. (1982). Historical background of the acceptance of induced abortion. Josanpu Zasshi 36(12), 1011-6. Retrieved April 12, 2006.
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- Kato, Mariko, "FYI: Abortion and the Pill, Abortion still key birth control", Japan Times, October 20, 2009.
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