South Korean activists staged a protest Friday against a government crackdown on abortion, saying women should have the right to decide on the issue.
About 40 activists, mainly women, from 24 groups shouted "Stop a crackdown on abortion that violates women's rights" in a Seoul park, after issuing a joint statement to mark International Women's Day on March 8.
Abortion is officially illegal unless there is a risk to the mother's health or in cases of rape or foetal malformation. But it has been widely tolerated in the crowded nation, partly to reduce the birth rate.
About one month ago a group of obstetricians supporting tough abortion rules began reporting colleagues who perform the operation.
Last week the health ministry announced its own crackdown, saying criminal penalties for illegal abortions would be enforced. It estimates that 350,000 abortions were carried out in 2005.
After decades spent trying to curb population growth, officials in recent years have been trying to boost the birth rate -- one of the world's lowest -- to counter the ageing of society.
"Abortion for social and economic reasons must be tolerated," the activists said in the statement.
They accused the government of using women's bodies "as mere tools to control population" and said their interests should not be sacrificed to boost the birth figures.
"Decisions on pregnancy, abortion and childbirth must be left to women," the statement said, describing the crackdown as violating women's rights.
The campaign against abortion has prompted many obstetricians to refuse to conduct the procedure, sent the price of the operation soaring and caused more trouble to pregnant women, said Choi Mi-Jin, a leading activist.
"There are desperate calls from women asking for help because hospitals refuse abortion," she said.