Abortion form in a Japanese clinic
Personal Accounts Amid Japan's Progressive Abortion Law Change. Breaking the Silence.
I don’t have a perfect abortion story. Sometimes it’s so clear like the case of Savita Halappanavar and those that are surfacing now in the US and Poland, which are both countries that have moved ten steps in the wrong direction on abortion.
Instead, my story is garden-variety and nuanced. It’s not here for the outrage. It is quiet, humdrum and yet so life-defining for the circumstances of me and my partner.
I started writing because there are so many sensitive, intelligent men out there (my partner one of them, it turned out) who are dangerously ignorant of the bodies of those who can carry children. Yet it is by male legislators, mostly, that the rights of autonomy over our bodies are approved or denied.
If you missed the news that Japan sanctioned the abortion pill combination mifepristone and misoprostol in late April, you’d be forgiven. I also missed it. This massive change in women’s health policy arrived with very little fanfare in the archipelago.
This did not surprise me. After almost two decades living in Japan, I grew accustomed to an absence of contraception options. To stay safe from unplanned pregnancies, every three years I went back to the UK for long enough to get the free, progestogen-only implant that has a low constant dose and for me, didn’t produce adverse reactions that I experience with other methods.
When the pandemic locked the borders for two and a half years, however, I had no choice. A gynecologist in Shibuya who had never performed the removal procedure, took her best shot and left me with 5 stitches in my left arm. I lost access to my normal method, and we then only had less effective methods.
Time passed. An accident happened. One that I’ve guarded my body from for all of my adult life.
In this later life-stage, I wondered, dreamed, imagined how it could work. I love and trust my partner. In many ways, we are fortunate.
He brought me back down to earth.
We don’t have the resources. We couldn’t do the work justice. We are from different sides of the planet and the only place we can both legally live together in the short term is on our visas that we still renew, regularly in Japan. We live in a rented place where he runs his studio. We have equipment everywhere and it’s needed for his work. Moving these things that weigh us down would be diabolical. Our jobs are unstable. We do ok for ourselves but how could we provide the lifetime commitment of a child from this shifting ground that we constantly fought to stabilize. We didn’t want to fail at that. I’m in the middle of a degree and working almost full time as well. We saved hard but we’re just not there yet.
I don’t know any woman my age, at the edge of her fertility, who could take this decision without enormous trepidation. Yet we were resolved.
Finally getting to the safe abortion I received today seems incredibly lucky, and that shouldn’t be the case. The modern abortion pill combo was first used over thirty years ago, and accounts for the overwhelming majority of abortions in Europe, and is easily available in many parts of the world. In Japan it only legally became available in clinics as of about 7 days ago.
My first searches did not bring up anything about the abortion pill in Japan, and upon reading that the only option was a surgical procedure, I broke down. I wasn’t surprised, women’s health is incredibly restricted here, but I was in despair. Despite my efforts towards stoicism, invasive medical procedures have always terrified me.
We combed through clinics in Singapore (residents only), Hong Kong (phone didn’t connect) and finally the private clinics in the UK. Even if we could have stomached the post-pandemic intercontinental travel prices (perhaps the largest anyone might spend for access to the drug), the clinic videos suggested it would be dangerous to be on long-haul with the rare yet significant risk of heavy blood loss.
My partner continued the search and located the news about the law change. We knew it had only changed very recently. The clinics might not have it organized yet.
We only found five clinics in the whole of Japan that had mentioned it on their website. My Japanese is good, and we searched thoroughly. The first clinic told us they hadn’t proceeded any further with the registration application. Ringing the second clinic, the doctor answered directly and explained he couldn’t see how he could make it work for patients because the law required him to admit them to the hospital until it was over. He was waiting to see the hospitalization part of the law relaxed or examples from other clinics. A third clinic’s website simply admonished readers for trying to obtain the medication online. We didn’t call them.
At the fourth, the nurses didn’t recognize the name of the drug, since it was so new. After explaining further, they said that yes, they were just about to go online with the service. The fifth clinic was up and running but was only prepared to treat those who can read the Japanese-only instructions. To avoid the hospitalization requirement this clinic was operating the procedure by having you arrive at 7am on the second day. My body would then have to complete the induced miscarriage in a small cupboard-sized room by a deadline of 3pm or I would have to have the surgical procedure anyway. Various clauses told me about the legal requirement to inform both any and all recent sexual partners, as well as my husband in the case that I had one and he was not the father.
It was at this fifth and final clinic that I was able to access the abortion I never thought I would need but which bought me the extra time to finish my degree, settle into stable work, and for both of us to secure our immigration status.
Today marks the 42nd and final day of the short pregnancy. We acted immediately. I took a vaguely positive test the day after my period was due and we began searching two days later when a second test confirmed it. Today was the earliest day I could possibly have arranged this. It is also the last day of the six weeks that women in the US are now given after the fall of Roe vs Wade.
My partner, for all his sensitivity and intelligence, wanted to argue with me for a few head-banging minutes that we could not possibly be at week six because his sperm didn’t show up until four weeks ago. The egg was there though. Setting off on her journey two weeks prior to that. The entire medical and legal community starts with day one of the egg, not the moment of fertilization. So when a person gets to 6 weeks, we are literally talking about one week after her missed period. Or in other words, the first week that pregnancy can even be tested for. Ignorance of this among lawmakers is terrifying to me. Losing the right to decide to plan if and when to have a family, equally so.
Today my partner and I got through this difficult chapter and we made the most responsible decision we could have in our circumstances, but until the abortion pill access is expanded in Japan, women here continue to live with a limited set of choices. Choices they vitally need in order to protect their bodies, minds and to be in a state of preparedness for being responsible parents.
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