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Population Conclave Faces Sharp Clashes


The stage is set for a confrontation between two world views--one secular, another sacred--when 180 nations gather in Cairo next week to debate global strategies for stabilizing world population.

Incensed by the inclusion of abortion and contraception on the agenda, Pope John Paul II has mounted one of the Vatican's most intensive diplomatic offensives in recent memory to bend an international program into conformity with Catholic teaching.

"We cannot accept the systematic death of the unborn," John Paul said earlier this year. "Every family must know how to resist the false sirens of the culture of death." He condemned contraception as "an assault on the sacredness of life" and "contrary to moral law."

Equally adamant, United Nations officials and the Clinton Administration, as well as Catholic dissidents and leaders of other faiths, are no less certain of their own moral grounding.

"The Vatican is not the only one" to approach the issue of birth control with a moral vision, Fred Sai, chairman of the Cairo conference's preparatory committee, declared recently to loud applause at the United Nations.

How does the Vatican maintain the moral high ground of defending the sanctity of human life and the "dignity of the family" when the consequences of its opposition to contraception and legal abortion seem to many scientists, demographers and policy-makers to be self-defeating?

The world's population, now numbering 5.6 billion, has doubled since mid-century. It is growing at a rate of about 90 million a year--roughly equal to the population of Mexico.

At issue is a U.N.-sponsored 20-year program to stabilize world population at 7.27 billion by the year 2050. Unless the brakes are applied, world population could reach 8.9 billion by 2030, leveling off at 11.5 billion about 2150, according to a United Nations population projection.

Although it is not binding, the Cairo plan would serve as an internationally recognized model as nations fashion their own population policies.

It contains a number of proposals backed by the Vatican, including education for girls and primary health care for women and infants. A lower birth rate, for example, has been linked to improved literacy and a reduction in infant mortality.

But references to making legal abortions and contraceptives accessible to those who want them have infuriated the Vatican. The Pope has used nearly every public appearance to denounce the meeting and spoke out again Sunday from his country retreat southeast of Rome, saying conference documents do "not sufficiently value the social implications that are of the foundation of marriage and family."

Papal representatives are describing the stakes in apocalyptic terms.

"The lack of a coherent ethical vision underpinning a document which deals with fundamental questions concerning the future of humanity is extremely worrying," Msgr. Diarmuid Martin told a preparatory committee meeting April 4 in New York.

The Vatican's position is bound to have an impact on many of its 1 billion adherents worldwide, but it varies from country to country. A majority of Catholics in industrialized nations long ago rejected the teaching against contraception. It is in developing countries where the church's influence on sexual practices is greatest. Papal envoys are attempting to enlist both Roman Catholic and Islamic countries in their crusade.

But with one week remaining before the Sept. 5 opening of the International Conference on Population and Development, the Vatican is having difficulty laying exclusive claim to the moral high ground.

"Calling those with whom they disagree spiritually false, politically imperialist, morally and ethically deficient is as intolerant as it is self-righteously arrogant," Rabbi Balfour Brickner, a co-founder of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, told reporters earlier this week.

More than 3,200 U.S. Catholics and 55 organizations have signed a full-page newspaper advertisement to be published in the New York Times challenging the Vatican's stance against contraception.

In Brussels, 24 religious thinkers from a dozen variants of major world religions convened at the behest of the Ford Foundation and the Pew Global Stewardship Initiative to fashion a religious response to the Vatican.

"We don't dare let the Pope . . . pull off the notion that one side of this is moral because it opposes contraception and the other side is immoral and less religious," said Martin E. Marty, a noted religion scholar from the University of Chicago who chaired the Brussels meeting in May.

Some, like the Rev. Gordon L. Sommers, president of the National Council of Churches, questioned the morality of denying contraceptives to poor women when there are 25 million unsafe and illegal abortions each year. Others speak of the biblical imperative of stewardship of God's creation.

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