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Sunday, March 19, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Prefecture opts for foster-care plan to combat declining birthrate


A recent Associated Press poll found that Americans' views about abortion aren't very clear-cut. Only a small percentage of the respondents were in favor of either legalizing abortion completely or banning it outright. About 60 percent were somewhere in the middle. The AP took these results to mean that most Americans believe a woman has a right to an abortion but that there should be restrictions.

We tend to hear of the abortion debate in terms of moral extremes, but most people, according to the AP, "think abortion is murder" and yet are unwilling to prevent a woman from having one if that is her decision. Though morality enters into this thinking it's mainly a matter of privacy, which is what Roe v. Wade, the court decision that made abortion legal in America, was all about. The irony is that the debate is way out in the open. Everyone is required to have an opinion, even if they'd prefer not to think about it.

In Japan, where abortion is technically illegal but loopholes result in at least 300,000 approved pregnancy terminations a year, opinions are kept to oneself. Moreover, morality, rather than being a widely held set of values, is dispensed from on high as a means of adjusting public opinion toward some desired end.

Consequently, few eyebrows were raised last month when Fukushima Prefecture announced a new measure to help reverse its declining population. Starting in the next fiscal year, the prefecture will hire four coordinators and four counselors for its foster parent program. They will work to convince pregnant women who are considering abortions to bring their babies to term, after which these children will be raised in foster homes.

In Japan, prefectures administer foster care programs, and what's notable about the Fukushima plan is that it is the first one in which children are assigned a place in foster homes before they are born. Infant adoption is very rare in Japan because of the emphasis on blood ties. Foster parenting is acceptable because it is a social welfare measure. It is there to solve a problem.

In the Fukushima scheme of things, abortion is seen as being less of a moral dilemma and more of a social engineering issue. As the prefecture's vice-governor, Akira Kawate, said to reporters, "We are offering women who are thinking about abortion an option, and we hope as many as possible decide to have their babies. Society will raise them." The foster parents, we assume, are just there to watch.

Masami Ohinata, a professor of developmental psychology interviewed by Asahi Shimbun, offered the inevitable ethical rebuttal, saying that while no one thinks of abortion as "a good thing," the Fukushima plan sounds a lot like Japan's prewar policy of encouraging couples to produce as many babies as possible in order to help realize Japan's expansionist ambitions. "Inciting women to have babies is a very dangerous thing," Ohinata said. She added that such a program, if it spreads, will greatly limit a woman's right to choose. And she wasn't just talking about abortion.

No one denies that Fukushima is faced with a serious problem. Rural areas throughout Japan are seeing a steady decline in their population numbers, as well as alarming increases in abortion rates. In 2004, there were 15.8 abortions for every 1,000 women in Fukushima. The national average is 10.6. The Fukushima number increases to 17.7 when you narrow the demographic to minors.

These statistics definitely point to a crisis, but most people would say it has to do with a lack of sex education and access to birth control. The Fukushima plan acknowledges that abortion is a serious problem, but their solution implies that the problem is completely a matter of economics. Terminated pregnancies squander a potential for increasing Fukushima's work force and tax base.

This sort of thinking shouldn't be surprising given that sex education is receiving bad publicity at both the local and federal government levels. Liberal Democratic Party honcho Shinzo Abe, who has a good chance of being the next prime minister, is vocal in his belief that Japanese young people don't need early sex education. Though it's commonly thought that this opinion is merely a reflection of Abe's conservative bent, maybe he's just thinking of Japan's overall declining birthrate. Why should we teach kids to use contraception? They'll just stop having babies.

If we accept this line of thinking, then the Fukushima plan is almost radical, since it leap-frogs the kind of social evolution that is considered necessary before people will accept its premise. It's difficult to imagine that prefectural officials are comfortable with the idea of visibly pregnant teenage girls attending local high schools. And while the plan says that efforts will be made to keep the child with the birth mother, Japanese law still discriminates against children born out of wedlock.

One wonders what sort of arguments the prefecture will use with women who are thinking of terminating their pregnancies. In America, there is pressure on lawmakers to enact rules that make it mandatory for women seeking abortions to undergo counseling before the procedure, and anti-abortion groups advocate showing such women ultrasounds of their fetuses and explaining the procedure in grisly detail.

In contrast, an NHK documentary aired last fall profiled a Japanese gynecologist who refuses to perform abortions because it contradicts what he believes is his mission as a doctor. When a woman comes in for an abortion, he tries to change her mind using sentimental logic: You'll love the baby if you have it and hate yourself if you don't. The Fukushima line is simpler and even more patronizing: Do it for your prefecture.



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