AP 7 Sep 94 11:05 EDT V0735 1994. The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- A group of countries joined the Vatican Wednesday in opposing a section on abortion in the U.N. population conference's 20-year plan for reining in world population growth.

The announcement upset a compromise reached late Tuesday that would retain a section recommending government policies on abortion but declare that it shouldn't be promoted as family planning.

Iran, Pakistan and Benin, previously Vatican allies, agreed to support the compromise. And the European Union, Norway and Sweden accepted the changes in the conference's central document as their "rock bottom" position.

But when talks resumed Wednesday morning, delegates said seven countries and one U.S. territory -- all with Roman Catholic majorities -- announced support for the Vatican position: Malta, Argentina, Honduras, Guatemala, Slovakia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Guam, a U.S. territory that has observer status at the United Nations and a separate delegation at the conference.

The conference's plan of action does not require the blanket approval of all participants, and the Vatican did not approve documents that came out of the two previous 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.

The section under debate -- one paragraph in a 113-page plan -- deals with unsafe abortion and motherhood. The compromise would have retained sections urging governments to treat unsafe abortion as a major public health concern.

It would acknowledge the legality of abortion in some countries and say women who have abortions should have access to treatment for medical complications, counseling and family planning to avoid repeat abortions.

Namibian delegate Henning Melber said Wednesday as many as 20 countries now oppose that language.

"There is absolutely no progress on the matter," he said. "For those who came to a consensus, this is very frustrating."

Unable to reach consensus, the negotiators broke up into informal groups to discuss the next step.

Mary Ellen Glynn, spokeswoman for the U.S. delegation, said 95 percent of those at the conference support the compromise and it was unfortunate that a few were delaying progress on more important population issues.

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

Melber also said Namibia and many other countries were losing patience with the upending of a compromise that had been very difficult to reach.

"How long will they be able to compromise, compromise, compromise?" he asked.

The Vatican and Muslim nations have objected to parts of the plan on abortion or sex education. Other nations have complained that arguments over morality were taking attention from the real purpose of the conference -- slowing the population explosion by giving power to women.

In a key concession to the Vatican, the compromise on the abortion provision restored language from the 1984 population conference that abortion should never "be promoted as a method of family planning."

The Holy See was the only delegation that spoke out against the language at Tuesday night's closed-door session. A Vatican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, opposed a line that said that abortions should be safe in cases where they are legal.

But the Vatican official left open the possibility that it might accept the document once language on abortion in other sections are dealt with.

The Vatican's stance has created such tension in the committee session that on Tuesday, when the chairman asked for consensus and the delegate from the Holy See got up to refuse, groans and some boos broke out in the committee room, delegates said.

After Monday morning's negotiating session, Melber, the Namibian delegate, said Guatemala opposed the reference to legal abortion, saying it was a contradiction because there was no such thing as "legal robbery." Marta Casco, a delegate from Honduras, said her country would not accept the word "unsafe" but would like to keep the word abortion.

The compromise eliminates a reference to "sexual health education," a plea to governments to review their laws and policies on abortion, and a call to decriminalize abortion.

The consensus wording includes nine references to abortion, one to "unsafe abortion," and one to "unwanted pregnancies."

Before the conference started, delegates had agreed to more than 90 percent of the draft plan of action. But the most controversial issues remain unresolved with a week left before the conference ends.

The plan of action adopted by the conference is not binding on any nation but serves to shape national and international policies on population. The Vatican and some Muslims say the tone set by the draft document would promote abortion and promiscuity.