A Japanese high court on Thursday rejected an appeal for damages by two women who were sterilized under a now-defunct eugenics protection law, upholding a lower court decision due to the 20-year statute of limitations passing.

The two plaintiffs in their 60s and 70s in Miyagi Prefecture had sought a total of 71.5 million yen ($511,000), arguing that the law deprived them of self-determination with regard to giving birth and raising children, which is guaranteed under the Constitution.

The ruling at the Sendai High Court came despite four courts' rulings since February 2022 awarding damages over forced sterilization.

Presiding Judge Masako Ishiguri said the 1948 law had "caused enormous mental and physical pain" but denied damages on the basis that the 20-year statute of limitations for unlawful acts had elapsed, as stated by the Sendai District Court as one reason for its decision.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs in an appeal to the Sendai High Court over the now-defunct eugenics protection law holds up a sign reading "unjust ruling" after the court upheld a decision not to award damages, in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, on June 1, 2023. (Kyodo)

The district court became the first to rule that the eugenics protection law in effect until 1996 was unconstitutional in its 2019 ruling. The high court also deemed the law unconstitutional.

The law authorized the sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses or hereditary conditions, even without their consent. Government data shows some 25,000 people were sterilized.

Among the plaintiffs was a woman in her 70s going by the name Junko Iizuka. Her first suit to the district court lodged in 2018 was a catalyst for many cases going to trial over the defunct law.

Following the ruling, one of her legal representatives criticized it for "ignoring the growing number of winning cases and not facing the damage that has been caused" and added that they will "of course appeal as soon as possible."

Japan's parliament enacted legislation in April 2019 to pay 3.2 million yen in state compensation to each person who underwent forced sterilization. But the uniform amount has attracted criticism.

The district court ruling came the following May. In rejecting the damages, it said that applying the statute of limitations is "logical" because the "importance of quickly establishing legality is set down in law."

Iizuka was 16 when she was forced to undergo sterilization. She endured health issues and her marriage failed.

The other plaintiff, who is in her 60s, was sterilized without her consent based on a decision by a prefectural government review panel, after she was diagnosed at 15 as having a "genetic mental deficiency." She said the procedure caused her mental anguish including preventing her from finding a partner to marry.

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