SEPTEMBER 12, 1994

The earth's population is almost certain to double in the next century, no matter what actions nations take to curb the population explosion. But a United Nations Conference that was supposed to consider ways to avert a human and environmental catastrophe has been upstaged by religious attacks on birth control and family planning programs.

The United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo this week was intended to deliver a warm, wide and cozy consensus to help point the world toward a woman -empowering, population-limiting, poverty-reducing, growth-enhancing, environment-protecting future. these good goals will almost certainly be endorsed by some 160 countries at the third U.N. population conference, broadened this time to include economic development, education and the status of women.

Conferees will also debate the most fundamental issues raised by the world's population explosion: whether or not the growing baby boom is leading to mass starvation and an environmental apocalypse doom-mongers, demographers, greens, feminists, politicians, clerics and do-gooders of all kinds converged on Cairo this week to point the world toward a woman-empowering, population-limiting, poverty-reducing, growth-enhancing, environment-protecting future. These worthy goals, incorporated in a 20-year action program, will almost certainly be endorsed by some 160 countries at the United Nations' International Conference on Population and Development, the third of its kind, broadened this time to include all things conducive to stabilizing the world's population.

Conferees will also debate whether or not the growing baby boom is leading to mass starvation and an environmental apocalypse (stories, Pages 57 and 63). But a high-decibel attack by the Vatican and its newfound Islamic allies on what they consider an agenda for immorality and permissiveness is upstaging the formal proceedings. From a Cairo mosque last week, one preacher called the meeting ``a Zionist and imperialist plot to destroy Islam.''

In the face of the fundamentalist storm, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Lebanon have withdrawn their delegations, and Saudi Arabia's religious chief, Grand Mufti Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, has called on all Muslim nations to join the boycott. Two of the three women who rule Muslim states, Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh and Tansu Ciller of Turkey, along with Queen Noor of Jordan, have dropped out. The world center of Islamic scholarship, Cairo's Al-Azhar University, has denounced the conference action plan as un-Islamic, though Egypt's Grand Mufti finds it 90 percent acceptable.

Security in Cairo has been getting tighter by the day since the militant and murderous Islamic Group warned the 20,000 participants in ``the licentiousness conference'' that their lives are at risk. Egypt's embattled President Hosni Mubarak, who lobbied hard to host the meeting, has been broadcasting assurances that anything un-Islamic will be rejected and that, anyway, conference prescriptions are not binding.

The Clinton administration is taking a similar line in an effort to salvage the fracturing consensus and propitiate indignant clerics as well as religious voters at home. Vice President Al Gore, who is leading the U.S. delegation to Cairo, scheduled a last-minute speech at the National Press Club two weeks ago to stress America's concern for protecting the sovereign right of governments to set their own population policies. He also insisted that ``the United States has not sought, does not seek and will not seek to establish any international right to an abortion.'' A Vatican official, however, later leveled an unusual public attack on Gore, accusing him of covering up a U.N. policy of abortion on demand.


At the last U.N. population conference, in Mexico City 10 years ago, the Reagan administration led an antiabortion charge. This time, the United States is siding with advocates of full-service family planning, with safe, legal abortion as an emergency backup. Indeed, although abortion is now the most widely practiced form of birth control in the world and is legal in 172 countries, the draft plan rules out promoting it for family planning, using the very language which was adopted, on Reaganite insistence, in Mexico City.

The passions of America's abortion wars will be surfacing in Cairo this week less because of grass-roots antiabortion feeling than because of politicking by the Roman Catholic Church. Opposition to abortion is the moving force in a Vatican crusade that began last March with papal rebukes to the head of the U.N. Population Fund, President Clinton and the other world leaders, asserting that contraception, sterilization and abortion are all ``an assault on the sacredness of life.''

In April, Vatican envoys carried out a Jesuitical deconstruction of the draft program, targeting every reference to sexual or reproductive health and anything else that smacked of sexual permissiveness. This led to semantic hair-splitting whereby ``family planning'' is sometimes acceptable, sometimes not, but ``fertility regulation'' is always a no-no; ``maternal health'' gets through but not that most apple pie of concepts, ``safe motherhood.''

Muslims played almost no part in these doctrinal debates, even though the action plan includes sweeping assertions of women's rights, which many Islamic countries deny. But then the Vatican started secretly seeking allies. Libya and Iran revealed that they were objects of Vatican lobbying including, Tripoli claimed, offers to intervene in the dispute with the United States and Britain over extraditing the alleged bombers of a Pan Am jet. Since then, other Vatican feelers to Islamic governments and groups have come to light.

Both priests and mullahs abhor nonmarital sex, nontraditional families, homosexuality, adolescent sex education and abortion. Unlike the Vatican, Al-Azhar exempts abortion to save a mother's life and even runs family planning clinics. Islam has no fixed doctrine on population growth. But some Islamic groups proclaim that Muslims should be seeking to increase their population ``to the highest level possible''--an in-your-face refutation both of the conference theme and of the policies of many Muslim governments. The Vatican does not preach unlimited growth; it accepts the need for ``responsible parenthood.'' Still, the pope reportedly was outraged in June when 80 lay scientists from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences concluded that sustaining birthrates above two children per couple is ``unthinkable.''


Clerical dictates, like many secular ones, clearly have little impact on the behavior of the flocks. Italy and Spain, two of the most heavily Catholic countries, have the lowest birthrates in Western Europe, while the two largest Muslim countries, Indonesia and Bangladesh, have model family planning programs. Even holier-than-thou Iran has a strong family planning effort. Surveys show that up to 120 million married women, many of them Catholic and Muslim, want to limit or space their children but lack safe and effective means of doing so. Providing these women with contraceptives could hold back population growth by nearly 2 billion over the next 100 years, says demographer John Bongaarts.

Even though a total of 350 million couples, or 45 percent of married people, do not now practice birth control, making modern contraception more available cannot prevent the world's population from almost doubling in the next century (graph, Page 58). But after that, projections vary greatly, depending on the pace at which fast-growing developing countries lower their birthrates. A slow decline in fertility, the World Bank reckons, would mean 12.2 billion people by the end of the next century; a rapid decline would result in 9.3 billion. The U.N. plan for Cairo aims to set the world on the lower trajectory. Creating the economic and social conditions in which more parents would choose to have smaller and better-spaced families, says demographer Bongaarts, could reduce the world's population at the end of the 21st century by a billion more.

In addition, Columbia University epidemiologist Deborah Maine estimates that satisfying the unmet demand for family planning could cut the number of maternal deaths, now 500,000 a year, by about 150,000. It would also bring about a sharp drop in the 50 million abortions a year, which account for at least 60,000 deaths.

The slogan made famous at the first U.N. population conference in 1974 was ``Development is the best contraceptive.'' This was the developing countries' retort to Western pleas for stricter population control measures. The Cairo gathering's bumper sticker might be ``Women's empowerment works.'' The U.N. plan urges equality for women in all spheres of life as ``a highly important end in itself'' and ``essential for the achievement of sustainable development'' as well as ``the long-term success of population programs.'' The plan even calls for reducing women's ``extreme responsibilities with regard to housework.'' Coercive birth control, genital mutilation and sex-selective abortion are all up for banning.

Feminists, who played a large part in drafting the plan, could hardly ask for more. But they will swing into angry action if they think too many concessions are being made to the religious right, for example by diluting the definition and centrality of reproductive rights and reproductive health or barring access to family planning for the unmarried. Some radical feminist groups intend to hold mock trials in Cairo of the World Bank, the U.N. Population Fund and International Planned Parenthood for oppressing women through coercive birth control programs. All women's groups want to keep the focus on choice. If this seems threatened, some will be prepared to see the conference come crashing down.

The real measure of success in Cairo will not lie in the fine print. In fact, the Vatican's semantic cleansing last spring was not very thorough. Even if all the contested phrases are removed--and they amount to less than 8 percent of the text--the action plan will remain a clarion call for a social revolution to raise the status of women and link population stabilization to development and environmental protection. But the clerical attack can still do serious damage. U.N. documents are only as binding as governments allow them to be, and if the conferees in Cairo begin abandoning the reforming thrust of the program in the face of clerical opposition, some governments will feel free to revert to their old misogynist ways. Others, deprived of the cover of international consensus, will yield to the conservative pressures at home.


Another casualty of a head-on clash in Cairo could be the financing of the action plan. The full package of family planning and reproductive health for developing countries and former Communist states has been priced at $17 billion in 2000. Universal primary education, a vital adjunct, would cost an additional $5 billion to $6 billion a year. A saving grace is the proved cost-effectiveness of both family planning and girls' education. A dollar spent today will save many more down the road.

Two thirds of the $17 billion is to come from user countries and the remaining third from donors. This translates into a doubling of current spending by the poor and a sixfold increase by the rich. Japan, Canada, Britain, Australia, the Nordic countries and the European Union have already pledged to up their aid. The United States, which has budgeted $585 million for population support to 75 countries in 1995, is closer to meeting the U.N. target than all other countries except the Nordic nations and the Netherlands, although Washington would still need to treble its aid by 2000.

The immediate challenge, however, is averting a meltdown in Cairo. ``Never underestimate the Vatican's ability to intimidate politicians,'' warns population consultant Sharon Camp. ``If the Americans show some leadership, we have more clout than the Vatican does. Still, this is a fight the White House doesn't need.''