Pioneering Nisei writer and physician, Yasuo Sasaki, fought for reproductive freedom

(Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series on the career of Dr. Yasuo Sasaki).

In the years after World War II, the Sasaki family settled in Covington, Ky. Sasaki’s wife Lily painted and made clay figurines, and cared for Mimi and for their son Brian, born after Lily’s release from camp. She also kept up a lively correspondence with her sister, Mary Oyama Mittwer, who worked as a columnist for Rafu Shimpo and engaged in encouraging Nisei litterateurs. In contrast, Sasaki’s prewar literary and political interests took something of a back seat as he concentrated on his family life and medical practice (which ultimately moved from Covington to the neighboring town of Newport, and in 1970 to Cincinnati). Known locally as Doc, he served a widely assorted clientele. As his nephew Richard Oyama later described it, “Yas tended to Kentucky hillbilly patients and jazz musicians alike.”

Ironically, it was through his medical practice that Sasaki was eventually forced into the political arena. In August of 1969, Kathleen Iatrides, a divorcee with two children living in Cincinnati, went to consult Sasaki at his Newport office because she believed she was pregnant. According to Iatrides, Sasaki examined her, confirmed the pregnancy, and then performed an abortion on her in his office, for the fee of $300. At that time, abortion was illegal in Kentucky unless it could be shown to be necessary to preserve the mother’s life (35 other states had similar statutes — in 1970 Hawai‘i and New York would became the first two states to legalize abortion). Sasaki was arrested on a charge of “using an instrument with intent to procure the miscarriage of a pregnant woman.” After several court-granted delays, on Nov. 17, 1970, he was tried in the Campbell County Court. During the selection of the jury, Sasaki’s attorney, Mr. William H. Allison, Jr. asked potential jurors whether they were Catholics and therefore had religious scruples against all abortions. Four of the potential jurors stated categorically that they were against abortions. As one put it, “I don’t believe in abortions, period.”|

As a result, they were excused for cause. Jury members also were asked about pre-trial publicity and presumption of guilt. Two candidates offered the comment that if Sasaki hadn’t performed the abortion he wouldn’t be on trial. They too were excused. The judge then called the attorneys into chambers, and when they returned, the judge took over the examination of the remaining jurors, whom he found competent to serve.

Once the actual trial began, Sasaki initially denied having performed any abortion. The patient, who agreed to testify against him — rather unkindly under the circumstances — swore that he had given her an abortion at her request. (According to state law, even if a woman consented to an abortion, she was deemed a competent witness, and was not considered an accomplice for the purposes of her testimony.)

On Nov. 17, 1970, Sasaki was found guilty. His sentence was fixed at a $1,000 fine and one year and nine months in the state reformatory. Not only did he face prison, but the felony also meant the automatic loss of his medical license.

Sasaki immediately posted a $25,000 bond, and filed a petition challenging the conviction with the state court of appeals. (Even before his trial, he had appealed to a Federal District Court to quash his indictment on constitutional grounds, but the court had taken the matter “under advisement” and had failed to take any action). He argued to the Kentucky appellate court that the judge had erred by cutting off the voir dire examination. More broadly, he took the position that the laws against abortion violated the fundamental rights of women to decide whether or not to bear a child (and also their religious freedom, since the law had no secular purpose). Since the law did not allow for abortion to preserve the mother’s mental or physical health, he also claimed, the law infringed on the physician-patient relationship and the rights of physicians to offer the best medical advice. Furthermore, they were overbroad and vague in defining precisely what was necessary to save a mother’s life.

On Oct. 6, 1972, the Kentucky court of appeals issued its opinion in Yasuo Sasaki v. Commonwealth of Kentucky. The justices upheld the statute unanimously, finding it consistent with the state’s obligation to preserve human life (much of the opinion was drawn from a similar federal case that had been decided in Kentucky earlier that same year). They also found that the objection on the voir dire had not been properly preserved.

Sasaki then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in early January 1973 his attorneys filed a jurisdictional statement supporting their petition. Then, on Jan. 22, 1973, before the justices could even act on Sasaki’s appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in the celebrated case of Roe v. Wade that laws limiting abortion, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy, were unconstitutional. On that basis, the Supreme Court ruled in Sasaki v. Kentucky (410 U.S. 951) that Sasaki’s conviction was vacated, and mandated the Kentucky court to reconsider its original decision in light of the new ruling in Roe. As a result, on May 4, 1973, the Kentucky Court of Appeals unanimously reversed Sasaki’s conviction. The justices found that since the Kentucky abortion law under which he had been charged was identical, for practical purposes, with the Texas law at issue in Roe, it was unconstitutional as well, and thus his conviction could not stand.

One member of the Kentucky court, Justice Earl T. Osborne, wrote a concurring opinion in which he issued an ill-tempered denunciation of the Supreme Court and its ruling: “I believe that (the) court, in this instance and in many others, has and is usurping the rights of the several states in this Union to determine for themselves what constitutes a crime and to enforce their own criminal laws. This interference has now reached the point of the ridiculous. The citizens of the several states are forced, more and more, to look to the seat of our National Government for guidance, regulation and control and when they look, they are perceiving (sic) more and more of nothing but confusion and incompetence.” Through his legal struggle, which helped bring before the Supreme Court the issue of doctors and abortion, Sasaki had helped establish not only the rights of women to control their bodies, but of their doctors to furnish highest quality medical advice.

Throughout the postwar period, despite his busy professional life, Sasaki continued to be interested in literature. During the 1960s he published in the Cincinnati-based poetry journal “Mt. Adams Review” and produced his own slim volume of verse, “Ascension: Poems of Vintage, 1967” (1968), a set of brief poems that detailed his reactions to the events of the 1960s. Three of his poems later appeared in the 1980 Japanese American anthology “Ayumi.” A second poetry volume, “Village Scene, Village Herd: Poems of Vintage 1968 and sequel,” though planned for release in the mid-1970s, did not appear until 1986.

By this time, Sasaki had retired, and he and Lily had returned to the West Coast and settled in Berkeley, Calif. In 1985, he attended a “Coming of Age in the Thirties” symposium at UCLA, where he chaired a panel of prewar Nisei writers that included Mary Korenaga Sutow, James Omura, Hisaye Yamamoto, Mary Oyama Mittwer and Joe Oyama. Over the succeeding years, Sasaki worked with the young scholar Stan Yogi and others to organize an anthology of prewar Nisei writing. A preparatory model for the project, “Nisei Renaissance: An Anthology of Writing by Nisei Before 1942,” co-edited by Sasaki, was issued in 1993. It contained a sampling of poetry, plus notes for prose inclusions. Unfortunately, the larger study never appeared in print. Sasaki also served on the advisory board of the Japanese American History Archives. Yasuo Sasaki died on May 2, 2008. Lily followed in March 2010, just days before her 100th birthday.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

Comments

  1. Lynn hamamoto says:

    Met doc 3 decades ago via ron enyard. He was witty,kind the most intelligent man I’ve ever met. Apparently brave and deeply concerned about social justice. I was always too polite to ask about such a terribly important time in his life. I’d like to know more about his accuser. This topic still looms large and darkly over a woman’s right to choose. Opportunity of choice Is only fair and just for the one who bears all the burden of responsibility that men never have to consider for themselves or to be forced to suffer consequences for which they are equally responsible. Punishment trumps compassion by ever-restrictive laws against family planning. Yet, there is no support to support women and their children. The veteran’s administration amply supply Viagra and the like no questions asked but paying for contraceptive pills cause furor.

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