AP 08/17 08:01 EDT V0023 AUGUST 17, 1994 The Associated Press

LONDON (AP) -- In a report bound to spark opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, a U.N. population control group Wednesday said birth control should be more available, and women should be allowed to choose the size of their families.

The report, by the United Nations Population Fund, said improving women's status through education and health care is the key to slowing the population boom.

The annual report comes less than three weeks before the Sept. 5 opening of a U.N. conference, expected to draft a 20-year plan for controlling world population, which has already drawn Vatican fire.

Pope John Paul II has launched one of the biggest battles of his 16-year reign against the conference, saying it will spur abortion and birth control and threaten the traditional family.

Many Muslims also have criticized the conference as a challenge to their beliefs, maintaining it will foster abortion and sex outside marriage. The conference's draft report was condemned by Cairo's Al-Azhar University, the major center of Muslim thought, and by various radical Islamic spokesmen.

Like the conference proposal, the report released Wednesday says "unsafe abortions" kill 60,000 women a year.

"Appropriate contraception is in all cases preferable to the risks associated with unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion," it says, without endorsing abortion.

Entitled The State of World Population 1994, the report supports access to family planning information, access to reproductive health care for women, and the right of all women to choose if and when to get married and to get pregnant.

About 120 million women want to plan their families but can't get modern contraceptives, it said.

"At a minimum, women have the right to know that they do not have to risk their lives for a pregnancy, wanted or unwanted," the report says.

World population hit 5.66 billion this year and is projected to grow to 6 billion in 1998, 8.5 billion by 2025, and 10 billion by 2050, assuming continued declining fertility, according to the report.

Although fertility rates have fallen, the number of people is increasing by 94 million a year, the highest increase in history. Nearly all the growth is in Asia, Africa and Latin America, mainly in the poorest countries.

Citing three countries which have successfully confronted population growth -- Zimbabwe, Thailand and Colombia -- the report calls for national programs which invest in women's education and health and make greater efforts to improve their status.

"Study after study in country after country has found that on average, the more educated women are, the more likely they are to use contraception and limit fertility," said Tim Dyson, professor of population studies at the London School of Economics.

But Professor Julian Simon of the University of Maryland, who has written extensively about population, accused the Population Fund of talking about freedom but wanting governments "to persuade and coerce people to have different numbers of children than the couples want."

"Personal and economic liberty are the most powerful forces working for economic development, including the freedom to choose the number of children you want," he said.

More than 25 percent of international population assistance to developing countries is channeled through the United Nations Population Fund, which carries out programs in more than 130 countries and territories.