Abortion Conflict Overshadows U.N. Conference Strife Threatens Proposals for World Economy, Population

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IS THE VATICAN joining Islamic fundamentalists to deny women control over their bodies, or is Western imperialism trying to dictate how the Third World will live?

Whatever the conclusion, the upcoming United Nations Conference on Population and Development has set off a bitter dispute between many Catholics and people who believe that women have the right to an abortion.

Lost in the argument are many common points of agreement: that economic development curtails population growth, for example, or that coerced abortions such as those enforced by the Chinese government are wrong.

The conference - scheduled to begin in Cairo, Egypt, on Sept. 5 - is a once-a-decade United Nations event to produce a plan for reducing population growth. Estimates vary, but the 5.6 billion people on the planet today are expected to swell to 8.5 billion by 2025.

For the Vatican and Catholic opponents in this country, the conference is "Western imperialism" and a scheme to promote abortions in underdeveloped nations. Some Catholic activists say the conference's plan is to encourage homosexuality.

"We believe that the world is not presently overpopulated, nor is there any likelihood that it is going to be in the near future," New Jersey Bishop James McHugh said earlier this month. "We believe that reproductive health services for women are important and valuable, but they should not include abortion."

The Holy See has won support from some fundamentalist congregations in the United States. The governments of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Malta and Benin and reportedly authorities in Libya support the papacy's position. Among the most militant of the church's allies are Islamic fundamentalists, who argue that proposals encouraging education about sexuality and reproduction are actually intended to introduce indecency to Muslim society.

Last week a newspaper in Cairo published a front-page photograph of a transvestite and a story saying the conference was importing homosexual prostitutes.

The conference's written program talks much of helping women attain economic and social equality with men as a way of curbing population growth. And probably few people object to the program's suggestion that the world ban child prostitution, coercive sterilizations and rape as a political weapon.

But many of the 20,000 delegates to the conference do want safe, legal abortions - the United States, along with organizations representing Jews, Buddhists and Hindus - and that is diverting attention from the plan's noncontroversial but clearly good aspects. Vice President Al Gore said Thursday that although the United States disagreed with the Vatican, nearly 90 percent of the proposal already had found agreement.

"There is so much noise about the alliance of the Vatican and Islam," said Joan Dunlop, president of the International Women's Health Coalition. …