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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has the world's lowest birth rate, according to a United Nations report released on Tuesday, as women in Asia's fourth-largest economy struggle to achieve a balance between work and other life demands.

The annual report by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) found the fertility rate per woman in South Korea was only 1.

1, the lowest among 201 countries surveyed.

"Even as women have gained equality in access to education and work, decisions on having more children are constrained by their 'second shift' in taking care of children and managing households," said Won Do-yeon, chief of the UNFPA's Seoul office, in an email interview with Reuters.

Reversing the decline in fertility will require wider institutional reform consisting of policies to empower women, as well as the greater involvement and support of men, he said.

The U.N. report, which looked at practices that harm women and girls and undermine equality, featured a group of South Korean female activists who fought to curb a deep-rooted preference for son in the 1980s.

In 1994, 115.4 boys were born in the country for every 100 girls, but the ratio has dropped to 105.6, around a natural level, it said.

However, women in the country still face more domestic responsibilities, a glass ceiling at workplaces and new forms of gender-based violence including online sexual abuse, the report said.

Crimes involving dating violence and spy cams have led thousands of women in South Korea to protest in recent years, calling for stricter penalties and enforcement of laws.

"A strong civil society and women's groups are critical to addressing the emerging forms of violence," Won said.

Other countries with a low birth rate included Bosnia and Herzegovina and Singapore at 1.2, and Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Portugal at 1.3.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; editing by Richard Pullin)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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Court Upholds Employer Opt-Out From Cost-Free Birth Control

By JESSICA GRESKO, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with the Trump administration in its effort to allow employers who cite religious or moral objections to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women as required by the Affordable Care Act.

The high court on Wednesday said 7-2 the administration acted properly when it made the change, which lower courts had blocked.

“We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption. We further hold that the rules promulgating these exemptions are free from procedural defects,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a majority of the court.

The government had estimated that the rule changes would cause about 70,000 women, and at most 126,000 women, to lose contraception coverage in one year.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited those numbers in dissenting.

“In accommodating claims of religious freedom, this Court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs. Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree,” she wrote.

Birth control has been a topic of contention since the law was passed. Initially, churches, synagogues and mosques were exempt from the contraceptive coverage requirement. The Obama administration also created a way by which religiously affiliated organizations including hospitals, universities and charities could opt out of paying for contraception, but women on their health plans would still get no-cost birth control. Some groups complained the opt-out process itself violated their religious beliefs.

That opt-out process was the subject of a 2016 Supreme Court case, but the court, with only eight justices at the time because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, didn’t decide the issue. It instead sent both sides back to see if they could work out a compromise.

After the Trump administration took over, officials announced a rule change that allows many companies and organization with religious or moral objections to opt out of covering birth control without providing an alternate avenue for coverage. But the change was blocked by courts after New Jersey and Pennsylvania challenged it.

___

Associated Press reporter Mark Sherman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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