Japan has announced new guidelines that allow women to get an abortion without their husband’s consent if they can prove their marriage has effectively collapsed due to domestic violence or other reasons.
Previously, women had to obtain written consent from the man who impregnated them to terminate their pregnancy. Exceptions are granted only if the women could prove the father of their future child was dead, missing, or had raped her. Additionally, if the husband was the rapist, a woman still needed his consent to carry out an abortion.
The new guidelines, announced on Sunday by the Japan Medical Association, came after growing calls from medical and rights groups for women to have more say over abortions.
The Crime Victim Support Lawyer Forum, or VS Forum, a group of lawyers defending the rights of abuse victims, was among several organizations that demanded a reform of Japan’s Maternal Health Act.
In June 2020, VS Forum requested the Japan Medical Association, Japan’s largest professional association of licensed physicians, to review how they grant abortions.
“Though the law states that when a woman is a victim of rape she doesn’t need spousal consent for an abortion, in reality, that was often not the case,” Masato Takashi, the executive director of VS Forum, told VICE World News. “Female victims were turned away at many medical institutions.
Doctors were afraid of getting sued by the female’s partners, if they performed abortions without spousal consent.”
Japan’s health ministry adopted the recommendations put forward by the physician association, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reported on Sunday.
Though domestic violence support groups have cheered the new guidelines, they’re unclear how it will work in practice.
“The government hasn’t sent us any guidelines about how to better implement these revisions. Do victims need to speak to police to be considered victims of domestic violence? Or can it merely be victims who came to us for help? Nothing is made clear,” said a spokesperson from Saitama Victim Consultation Center, who declined to provide her name out of privacy concerns.
Takashi, of VS Forum, said victims of domestic abuse could still be denied access to abortions because of the taboo around such violence.
“It’s common for a woman to keep her experiences of domestic violence a secret. She may feel shame, or embarrassment. So when she’s asked, ‘Did you report this to the police?’ Obviously, most women haven’t. This law helps, but it’s not enough,” he said.
In the past 25 years, laws concerning abortions have generally become more liberal globally, with 29 countries relaxing abortion laws since 2000.
Yet millions of women still live under restrictive laws. 41 percent of the world’s female population cannot terminate their pregnancies freely, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization.
Japan is one of at least 12 countries that still require spousal consent for abortions. Some other nations include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Yemen, and Syria. 26 countries outright ban abortions.
Conversely, the Netherlands have some of the most lax laws around abortions. The United Nations has noted that “abortion is permitted virtually on request at any time between implantation and viability if performed by a physician in a (licensed) hospital or clinic.” For those living in the Netherlands, abortions are free of charge.