A 1,400-page report was released by Japan’s parliament on June 19, detailing the nation’s history of state-sponsored sterilizations.
The report documents nearly 25,000 people who were sterilized by the government due to cognitive disabilities, mental illness or hereditary disorders from 1948 to 1996.
At least 16,000 of these patients clearly did not consent to the procedure, including two nine-year-old children. In many cases, patients were told that they needed emergency abdominal procedures, when they were being surgically sterilized.
The current report is the result of 2019 legislation which commissioned the inquiry and agreed to award each victim $22,648, a total which many find insulting.
Protests have broken out, criticizing the report and questioning if the 8,500 individuals who allegedly consented to sterilization were coerced.
Many are insisting that the victim payments be increased and demanding an explanation as to why the sterilization law was allowed to exist for 48 years. Protesters want transparency and accountability, asking the nation to take responsibility for this dark period in its history.
Japan first enacted a sterilization law in 1940 with the passage of the National Eugenics Law by the Konoe government. The act limited forced sterilization to individuals with “inherited mental disease” while promoting genetic screenings prior to marriage.
It is estimated that between 1940 and 1945 only 454 people were sterilized. This changed after World War II.
In 1948, the Socialist Party promoted the Eugenic Protection Law in order to remove the restriction of previous legislation. The EPL focused upon voluntary and involuntary sterilization of individuals with a history of hereditary diseases, non-hereditary mental illness and intellectual delays.
In addition, the law expanded the permissibility of abortion, allowing for the termination of pregnancy in cases of rape, the possibility of hereditary disease and in cases where the fetus was not viable. With regard to both sterilization and abortion, consent of the mother or spouse was not required. Shockingly, the EPL was not repealed until 1996.
Japan was not the first industrialized nation to be rocked with such revelations. In recent years, both Greenland and the Czech Republic have witnessed high profile reports released by their governments.
From 1966-1975, the Danish authorities who controlled Greenland at the time inappropriately placed intrauterine devices in thousands of Inuit women and girls. In like manner, it was revealed that the old Czechoslovakian government had illegally sterilized thousands of Roma women between 1966 and 2012.
Eugenics programs like these go beyond just being immoral or violating the rules of informed consent.
They are horrific because it is too easy to jump from a desire to eliminate mental and hereditary disorders to public health officials making life and death determinations on a broader scale, based on any number of prejudicial views, including racism.
Before we dismiss such practices as remnants of Nazi Germany, let us not forget that the U.S. was heavily involved in the eugenics movement as well, under the guise of protecting and promoting the public health.
Eugenics, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, “is an inaccurate theory linked to historical and present-day forms of discrimination, racism, ableism and colonialism. It has persisted in policies and beliefs around the world, including the United States. … Many of these policies and beliefs still exist in the U.S.”
In 1907, Indiana passed the nation’s first sterilization law, which focused on men with mental disorders or disabilities. In the following years, 31 other states followed suit. By 1927, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Buck v. Bell that the state of Virginia had a right to sterilize mental patients in order to protect the public health.
Even before this ruling, some officials had already jumped from restricting the breeding of mental patients to controlling the propagation of individuals and groups they thought were inferior or undesired.
In 1915, the Public Health Services (the predecessor of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) had already adopted eugenics principles, pushing for restriction on immigration in order to protect the public health. This attitude ultimately led to a long history of coerced sterilization which impacted whole generations of minorities and caused irreparable harm to Indigenous communities.
Racial eugenics in the U.S. culminated in the passage of the Family Planning Services and Research Act of 1970 (also known as the Title X Family Planning Program), which financed the sterilizations of patients who participated in Medicaid or used the Indian Health Services.
The programs had such an impact that it is impossible to calculate how many potential generations of Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanic Americans were lost.
Fortunately, most of these programs were defunded due to public outcry following the 1978 SCOTUS ruling in Madrigal v. Quilligan, a case about forced sterilization of minorities in California.
Sadly, we still see these types of atrocities today. Even as recently as 2020, immigration officials were involved in the sterilization of Latina detainees in the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia.
We must not make the mistake of thinking that the evils of the eugenics movement are a thing of the past. Eugenics was about more than breeding out hereditary diseases. It was about deciding who was worth services and who was not. It was about limiting the propagation of unwanted demographics.
The attitude goes beyond forced sterilizations. Anytime a government or population refuses to provide basic services like housing, health care, clean water, food and education, they are limiting the propagation of a demographic and, in essence, they are deciding who is worth living, reproducing and thriving.
It is not without a sense of irony that I point out that 108 years ago the U.S. began its seven-decade involvement with eugenics that began with a call to restrict immigration from Mexico and now immigration has been a hot-button issue for the last four years.
But this is not just an American issue; it is a debate that is raging across the world, and it has links to the eugenics movement.
In short, the ideology and attitude informing eugenics is arrogance in its most extreme form, manifested in deciding which people deserve to survive and thrive.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.