AP 6 Sep 94 14:07 EDT V0276 1994. The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Delegates at the U.N. population conference homed in Tuesday on compromise language to get past the thorny topic of abortion, but the Vatican issued a new blast against any endorsement of the practice.

Vice President Al Gore, head of the U.S. delegation, tried to shift attention from the abortion debate that has entangled efforts to produce a 20-year plan for slowing world population growth. But the main work at the session still focused on a single paragraph on abortion in the 113-page draft report.

The conference's report will not be binding on any nation, but the Vatican and some Muslims contend the proposed Program of Action would set a tone favoring abortion and promiscuity.

Gore repeated assertions that the 182 delegations already have agreed on most of the report and tried to put the best face on his meeting with the head of the Vatican's delegation.

"I think they're finally understanding what we've said all along," he said. "The misunderstandings they've had before have been significantly dispelled."

But he conceded the two sides would inevitably remain divided on contraception and "an American woman's right to choose" abortion.

The Vatican, however, responded by saying it would not soften its opposition to the draft report.

"The Holy See cannot give explicit or implicit support to those parts of the document regarding abortion," a "weakening" of the definition of the family or provisions to provide adolescents with confidential sexual health care, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro said.

In a speech Monday, Gore told delegates the United States did not advocate an international right to abortion and considered it up to each nation to decide the matter. But Navarro criticized the idea that countries can pick and choose what to follow from the conference's conclusions. "This is absolutely unacceptable. We are dealing with an international document ... preparing policies for governments that deal with human beings," he said.

The director of the World Health Organization, Hiroshi Nakajima, appealed for an end to the discord Tuesday, echoing many delegates in saying that abortion was drawing attention from the conference's main objectives.

"It would be a sad irony if our efforts to empower women were to be reduced to a debate on abortion," Nakajima said in a speech.

Gore insisted the International Conference on Population and Development, in its second day, "is already an outstanding success."

"There will be a broader consensus than has ever come out of a conference of this kind in all of the history of this effort" with only about 1 percent of the report still in dispute, he said.

Still, work in the closed committee putting the conference report in final form was all about abortion. The European Union was trying to find wording that would satisfy the Vatican.

One widely supported addition to the disputed paragraph would state that "post-abortion counseling, education and family planning services should be offered promptly so as to prevent repeat abortions," U.S. delegates said.

The Barbados delegation suggested changing a Vatican-backed sentence that states, "In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning," to substitute the word "encouraged" for "promoted." The United States supported that idea.

However, it was unlikely the Vatican would accept any language leaving open the possibility of abortion.

The Vatican wants to eliminate all references to permitting women to freely terminate their pregnancies. For example, it objected to phrases such as "reproductive health" and "fertility regulation," which it considers codewords for abortion.

Suggested changes in the draft report would have to go back to drafting committee of national representatives and U.N. officials and would then be returned to the full conference, possibly on Thursday.

U.S. officials expressed optimism at the wide support for the general thrust of the European Union compromise. For instance, Panama, one of several Central American countries that had sided with the Holy See, spoke generally in support of the EU language.

The European Union's thinking was given great weight because the bloc represents a spectrum of views, including those of heavily Roman Catholic Ireland.