AP 7 Sep 94 19:00 EDT V0053 1994. The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- A hard-fought compromise on abortion unraveled at the U.N. population conference Wednesday under an assault by allies of the Vatican, which drew increasing criticism for its tough stance at the meeting.

Many delegates complained that the fight over abortion-related wording in a single paragraph of a 113-page policy document on slowing the world's population growth has distracted the conference from other important issues.

The policy statement does not require blanket unanimous approval, and the Vatican did not support documents issued by U.N. conferences in 1974 and 1984. But great effort is being made to reach compromise because the United Nations likes consensus when issuing long-term goals.

Whatever statement is finally adopted will not be binding on any nation, but such U.N. documents influence national and international policies. The Vatican has a delegation because it's a permanent observer at the United Nations.

Hours after the compromise fell apart, the Vatican's chief delegate delivered a tough speech attacking the draft of a plan of action for curbing world population growth over the next 20 years.

Archbishop Renato Martino said that if adopted as is, the text "would endorse pregnancy termination without setting any limits" and might make access to abortions an international right.

Such a right would contradict the laws of many countries and the "sensibilities of vast numbers of persons, believers and unbelievers alike," he said.

The speech continued a months-long campaign by the Vatican and Pope John Paul II to keep abortion rights out of the conference's conclusions. The campaign has put the Holy See at odds with the Clinton administration and others.

Speaking at the opening session Monday, Vice President Al Gore said the draft document did not intend to make abortion an international right and argued it was being misinterpreted.

On the conference's third day, anger and frustration were growing that abortion has dominated discussions.

"We are drowning in these issues," said Mohamed Ali Taskhiri, leader of the Iranian delegation.

Egypt's population minister, Maher Mahran, told reporters: "Egypt is not a hostage in the hands of the Vatican. Nobody can twist our arms."

Ghanaian delegate Harriet Tacahie-Menson said, "I'm a Catholic but I think the Vatican is behaving just like the proverbial ostrich."

Delegates from 178 countries are working to approve a plan that would lay out a policy for reining in the world's population, which is expected to more than double by 2050.

They seemed to have reached consensus Tuesday night on a minutely worked-out 175 words on policies toward "unsafe abortions."

The compromise weakened some language but still urged governments to deal with unsafe abortion as a major public health concern, acknowledged the legality of abortion in some countries and said measures should be taken to reduce it.

The compromise was dashed within hours when delegations from at least seven nations and one U.S. territory -- all with Roman Catholic majorities -- objected, supporting the Vatican's contention that some phrases were pro-abortion.

The opponents were Argentina, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Malta, Slovakia, Uruguay and Guam, a U.S. territory that has observer status at the United Nations and a separate delegation at the conference.

A main objection was the reference to legal abortions, delegates said.

The compromise had united diverse countries like Iran, Pakistan, the United States and Benin, a Vatican supporter. The European Union, Norway and Sweden also accepted it as their "rock bottom" compromise. "For those who came to a consensus, this is very frustrating," said Henning Melber of Namibia, a delegate who favored the compromise.

The section was sent back to a committee for more work, but delegates put off further discussion until Friday.

Other key passages involving sexual health also have been put off until then so talk could focus for a while on a less controversial chapter on population distribution and migration.

The logjam on abortion has created such tension that on Tuesday, after the chairman asked if anyone objected, groans and boos arose in the committee room when the Vatican representative stood up, delegates said.

Mary Ellen Glynn, spokeswoman for the U.S. delegation, said it was unfortunate that a few were delaying progress on population issues many people considered more important.

"We don't want this conference to be on abortion, and stringing it out does just that," she said.

The delegates came into the conference agreed on 90 percent of the text of the policy document, but disagreement has raged on abortion, funding, the issue of sovereignty and the definition of the family.