AP 10 Sep 94 16:33 EDT V0735 1994 The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- The abortion debate at the U.N. population conference, for all its divisiveness, has succeeded in focusing the world's spotlight on the broader issue of curbing the world's population boom.

Delegates failed to resolve three remaining issues in their Program of Action on Saturday night, but before the conference closes Tuesday they are expected to approve the wide-ranging plan for slowing population growth.

It's true that many more compelling components got short shrift -- equal rights for women, ensuring equal education for girls, women's health issues and balancing population growth with the earth's limited resources.

But the silver lining is that with the abortion argument raging, the world paid more attention to overpopulation over the past week than it would have if the conference consisted only of droning speeches.

Dr. Fred Sai, chairman of the committee on the abortion question, said the abortion debate has been good for the conference. "Without it, you people (in the media) would have buried it," he said Saturday at a news conference.

In a ceremony organized alongside the conference by religious activists, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Ba'hais held hands in a circle Saturday and prayed for peace.

The Muslim prayer ended with a veiled woman shouting at the imam, or prayer leader, for speaking out against abortion, women's equality and other ideas discussed at the conference.

"God, take care of those who want to spread promiscuity and homosexuality among Muslims," the imam intoned. About 100 people responded "amen" before an Egyptian woman in the audience began shaking her fists.

"I am Muslim and I don't support what you are saying," she shouted before security intervened. "You are destroying and distorting the image of Islam."

While the problems of population growth are huge -- the world gains more than 90 million people each year -- the meeting has mostly dealt with arguments over minute turns of phrase like "fertility regulation" and "reproductive and sexual health."

The joke circulating in the corridors at the conference was: "Who ever thought that talking about sex all week could be so boring."

The key remaining issues center on "reproductive rights" for women. The Vatican objects that the phrase could be misconstrued to include abortion, and Muslim countries are worried that the wording could foster premarital sex.

Delegates finally hammered out compromise language on "unsafe" abortion Friday, but the Vatican still refused to sign on, along with predominantly Catholic Malta, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina. Delegates said Jordan, Libya and Costa Rica also registered objections Saturday.

Sai, whose committee worked on the abortion compromise, said that for all the fuss, changes in language did not alter the meaning that much.

But he noted the Vatican's rigid stance through five days of debate produced much bitterness.

"There is rightful anger, frustration and concern among many quarters about the extent we had to bend over backwards" in trying to accommodate the Vatican's position, Sai said.

When the conference ends Tuesday, delegates from 184 countries, territories and organizations will return home, armed with a 113-page plan of action to tackle population issues over the next 20 years.

At the current rate of population growth, the current population of 5.7 billion would hit 10 billion by 2050.

The document is not a treaty. It is not legally binding. It simply states what a consensus of the world feels about a host of population issues ranging from reproductive rights to refugees, economic migrants and the environmental impact of an ever-increasing population.

It is then up to each country to develop its own national plan. Dr. Nafis Sadik, head of the conference, stressed that countries can adopt or reject any part of the document.