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Medication Abortion Will Soon Be Legal in Japan—As Long As Your Male Partner Says It’s OK

The country's abortion laws and attached requirements have recently sparked a reckoning.

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Japan is reportedly set to approve a bill that would legalize medication abortion in the country later this year. But there’s a pretty big catch: To be prescribed the pills, abortion seekers will have to provide their male partner’s written consent—a requirement plucked straight out of an abuser’s playbook that all but reduces women and pregnant people as being the property of men.

The partner consent requirement matches an identical requirement pegged to the existing law legalizing procedural abortion in Japan. The requirement stems from Japan’s Maternal Protection Law, passed more than 70 years ago in 1948. Those in violation of the requirement, either by forging a partner’s signature or illegally buying pills online can face up to a year in prison.

Mizuho Fukushima, an MP with Japan’s opposition Social Democratic party, has vocally criticized the consent requirement for dehumanizing pregnant people. “Women are not the property of men,” Fukushima said in parliament earlier this month. “Their rights, not those of the man, should be protected. Why should a woman need her partner’s approval? It’s her body.”

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You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Japanese Parliament is overwhelmingly male, and the country maintains the lowest political representation of women —just 10.2 percent—in the G20. Japan is also one of just 11 countries that require third-party consent for abortion care.

These laws ostensibly offer exceptions for rape victims, but both are now under heavy scrutiny as reproductive rights advocates in Japan point out the dated origins of the requirement, as well as its chilling impact on domestic violence victims.

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Last year, one Japanese woman was imprisoned because she left her newborn in a park, after being forced to give birth because she couldn’t get in contact with the man who had impregnated her to get his written permission. Additionally, The Guardian reports there have been several cases of doctors denying abortion care to people who had been sexually assaulted, despite how the requirement supposedly allows an exception for rape.

This, of course, isn’t exactly surprising. It’s not clear how victims seeking to invoke the exception in Japan are to “prove” they were raped, but here in the US, most abortion restrictions and bans with rape exceptions require victims to report and prove their rape to law enforcement—despite how the vast majority of sexual assaults are unreported. Rape exceptions attached to these laws essentially exist only on paper, helping anti-abortion lawmakers present their dehumanizing bills as less extreme while subjecting survivors and all pregnant people to the trauma of state-sanctioned reproductive coercion.

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Kumi Tsukahara, an organizer at Action for Safe Abortion Japan, has pointed out how the consent requirement “becomes an issue when there is a disagreement with the spouse or the spouse is forcing the woman to give birth against her will.” Tsukahara continued, “For women, being forced into a pregnancy they do not want is violence and a form of torture.”

As if, to Tsukahara’s point, being forced to remain pregnant and give birth against your will isn’t violent enough, the power that the partner consent law accords to possibly abusive men over their victims is staggering. Reproductive coercion is a prevalent form of intimate partner violence, and here in the US, research has shown being unable to obtain abortion care places someone at exponentially greater risk of long-term domestic violence.

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Abortion bans in Texas, Idaho, and Oklahoma that allow plaintiffs to sue those who help someone get an abortion for at least $10,000 or even $20,000 have opened the door for rapists to stalk and profit off their victims’ pregnancies by suing victims’ family members who help them get abortions. And just as Japan threatens those who violate its partner consent requirement with prison, in the US, criminalization for pregnancy outcomes including self-managed abortion with pills has been sharply on the rise.

In any case, as if the partner consent requirement weren’t enough, abortion pills also won’t be covered by Japan’s national health insurance and could cost an estimated ¥100,000 or $780. In other words, with or without a partner’s consent, abortion pills will be virtually inaccessible for low-income people.

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On International Safe Abortion Day in September, Kazane Kajiya, a Japanese abortion rights activist, accused the government of treating “our bodies as its national property.” She continued, “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.

It isn’t lost on reproductive rights advocates across Japan that the country previously took just six months to approve the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra, while it remains one of the last countries in the world that still hasn’t legalized medication abortion. Even if this bill does pass with the partner consent requirement, this can hardly be celebrated as a feminist victory—not when the law remains predicated on the notion of women and pregnant people as men’s literal property. As Kajiya put it in a petition challenging the partner consent requirement last year: “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.”