AP 30 Aug 94 17:15 EDT V0613 1994 The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Development and family planning experts fear the goal of slowing the world's exploding birth rate will get lost at next week's U.N. population conference amid an outcry from the Vatican and Muslim fundamentalists over sex and abortion issues.

The conference aims to promote a wide range of policies to slow population growth -- at an all-time high of 90 million people a year -- and encourage development, especially in Third World countries. Measures range from birth control to economic development to improving the status of women.

But the Vatican's campaign against artificial birth control and Muslim fundamentalists' fears the conference will encourage promiscuity threaten to overshadow the rest of the agenda.

Sunetra Puri of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, one of the major private groups at the meeting, complained Tuesday that critics were trying to reduce the conference agenda to only "abortion, sex and reproductive health issues."

"The most important issue should be the survival of the world -- the quality of life for all and, especially, for the more than 50 percent of the population who are women," she said in an interview Tuesday.

But a debate has arisen over the 113-page draft "program of action" to be discussed by more than 180 national delegations attending the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development starting Monday.

A well-publicized campaign by the Vatican and its supporters is aimed at eliminating all references to artificial birth control and abortion.

The Vatican on Tuesday seemed to soften its tone, saying it would seek consensus at the conference.

"We are going to Cairo ... to bring about a document adopted by consensus," Archbishop Renato Martino told Vatican Radio.

But the Holy See is unlikely to soften its stand. And Martino, the Vatican's representative at the United Nations who will lead the Vatican delegation, repeated the pope's language that if the conference endorses abortion, "We will face a most grave threat to the future of humanity."

Muslim hard-liners charge that the draft advocates abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex and have called for offending sections to be expunged.

U.N. officials confirmed Tuesday that Saudi Arabia and Sudan, apparently concerned about the growing hostility from Islamic religious scholars, have withdrawn their delegations.

And Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt have threatened to press ahead with a law suit to try to block the meeting, despite a court ruling Tuesday against them.

Moderates, such as Vice President Al Gore and Egyptian Population Minister Maher Mahran, have tried to assuage opponents and steer the conference back to the world's population. If left unchecked, it will more than double to 12.5 billion in 50 years. In a speech last week, Gore acknowledged, "We do not imagine that we will ever put the abortion debate to rest -- differences go too deep."

But he added that "hard work, respectful dialogue and reasoned reconciliation" at the conference will allow adoption of a 20-year program "for women, for children, for the environment and much else besides."

Mahran, a major organizer of the conference, pointed out that 90 percent of the plan already has been approved at preliminary U.N. meetings. Once completed, the final version is not binding but will allow countries to follow its framework.

"The Cairo conference represents the last opportunity in this century to address population issues in relation to development," he said.

Lost in the rhetoric are many issues on which there is consensus, such as:

--Increasing help to less developed nations, where more than one-third of the population is under the age of 15.

--Improving the status of women.

--Promoting the man's role in "responsible parenthood."

--Reducing infant and maternal mortality.

--Enhancing the economic and environmental well-being of all nations.

--Improving the lot of migrants and refugees.

--Integrating population programs with development strategies.

Dr. Amal Abdel-Hadi, a member of Egypt's New Woman group, accuses fundamentalist groups, "whether Christian or Muslim, of using the conference to spread their ideas about the whole society, and especially the woman's role in it."