updated 1/30/2007 5:04:33 AM ET 2007-01-30T10:04:33

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rebuked Japan's health minister Monday for calling women "birth machines," a remark that caused an outcry in the country.

But Abe dismissed calls for the embattled minister to resign over the comment.

"I reprimanded him severely," Abe said, adding that he saw no reason for Health Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa to step down. "From now on, I hope he will remain fully devoted in his job and obtain the people's understanding."

Abe's comments came just hours after a group of female lawmakers called for Yanagisawa's removal.

The health minister triggered outrage over the weekend by describing women as "birth machines" in a speech on the country's falling birthrate. He later retracted the remarks.

"The number of women between the ages of 15 and 50 is fixed. The number of birth machines (and) devices is fixed, so all we can ask is that they do their best per head," Yanagisawa was reported as saying in the speech Saturday.

The government has been scrambling to implement measures to persuade couples to have more children amid concerns about the country's shrinking population. Japan's birth rate was 1.26 babies per woman in her lifetime in 2005, a record low and far below the level needed to keep the country's population steady.

A proposal adopted in June calls for increasing child care, promoting greater gender equality, and encouraging companies to be more flexible in allowing staff to take care of family responsibilities.

But the high cost of raising children, as well as the lingering notion that women should quit their jobs after giving birth, has meant many opt to have few or no children.

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