Japan formally approves nation’s first abortion pill

Until now, surgery was the only approved option for early-term abortions in Japan

Emily Atkinson
Saturday 29 April 2023 18:25 BST
Women in early pregnancy across Japan will now be able to access Mefeego
Women in early pregnancy across Japan will now be able to access Mefeego (Getty Images)

Japan has approved the sale of an oral abortion pill for the first time, offering women an alternative to the surgical procedure, the nation’s health ministry has announced.

The move was hailed by medical experts as a major step for reproductive rights in the country, but insisted this was the “minimum” to have been done.

Women in early pregnancy across the country will now be able to access Mefeego – a treatment developed by the UK pharmaceutical company Linepharma International that can terminate a pregnancy of up to nine weeks of gestation.

The treatment is a two-drug combination. The first, mifepristone, blocks the hormone progesterone, without which the lining of the uterus breaks down, meaning the pregnancy cannot continue. The second, misoprostol, taken 36 to 48 hours later, causes the uterus to empty.

After four to six hours the lining of the womb breaks down, causing bleeding and loss of the pregnancy. It does not need surgery or an anaesthetic.

Until now, surgery was the only approved option for early-term abortions in Japan, but the method has been criticised for risking harm to the uterus.

Abdominal pain and bleeding are noted as possible side effects of Mefeego, meaning women who take the treatment must stay in a hospital until the abortion is confirmed by doctors.

Pharmaceutical companies and medical institutions are asked to give monthly reports to their local medical associations on the number of pills that have been sold and used.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has designated Mefeego as an essential drug for abortion and has promoted it as a safe alternative.

The Mefeego pill pack is available in 80 countries, according to Linepharma International.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare approved it under the country’s maternal health law and the pill has drawn considerable interest in Japan over its possible side effects and price.

Mefeego’s manufacturing and marketing was approved by a health ministry panel last week after the ministry received around 12,000 public comments.

There were 126,174 abortions in Japan in fiscal 2021, according to the health ministry.

Kumi Tsukahara, director of the Reproductive Health Rights Literacy Institute, said: “Being able to control one’s own pregnancy is already the minimum requirement for gender equality.

“Although this discussion is on medicine, we must not lose sight of how this is a human rights issue.”

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