Consensus Emerges on Need to Slow Population Growth despite Controversy over Abortion and Birth-Control Methods, the UN Population Conference in Cairo Will Approve a Program for Global Action

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WHEN 10,000 delegates, nongovernmental experts, and journalists gather in Cairo Sept. 5 to 13 for the start of a United Nations megaconference on population, the big news will be controversy.

The stage is set in the Egyptian capital for a dramatic clash of cultures - between the Vatican and feminist groups.

But behind the big news will be the real news: When it comes to the whys and hows of slowing world population growth, consensus is broader than ever before. Without slower population growth, most Cairo-based experts agree, it will be nearly impossible to retrieve poor nations from the grip of underdevelopment.

"It's important to recognize just how far we've come," Sally Shelton, an assistant administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, told reporters recently.

"What we have in the run-up to Cairo ... is a clear and widespread consensus from every single corner of the globe and from all the various parties involved that rapid and unsustainable population growth is a critical issue in the area of development," she said.

The goal of the 10-day conference will be to finalize and ratify a draft 113-page "Programme of Action," a 20-year blueprint for achieving population stabilization and other development objectives that was drafted by the UN after extensive consultations. Eighty-five percent of the document has been agreed on in advance of the conference, known formally as the International Conference on Population and Development. Less controversy this time

Most of the objections pertain to language that could be interpreted to permit abortion or modern methods of family planning. Three-quarters of the 200 sentences or phrases that will be debated at the conference were "bracketed" by the Vatican and its allies.

The high level of agreement that exists despite the bracketed provisions contrasts sharply with the controversies that marked the first global UN population conference.

At the meeting held in Bucharest, Romania, in 1974, divisions formed over the issue of how to slow population growth. The US and other Western democracies pressed the argument that the only way developing countries could get runaway population growth under control would be to institute family-planning programs. The developing nations responded that little could be done about population until economic and social conditions were improved. The view was encapsulated in the catch phrase "development is the best contraceptive," which became the informal slogan of the conference.

Ten years later, the issue was whether population growth was a problem worth worrying about. By the time delegates gathered in Mexico City in 1984, most developing nations had come around to the view that it was.

But this time it was the US that advanced the contrary view. In Mexico, the Reagan administration reversed the working premise of the previous five US presidential administrations by announcing that population was a "neutral" factor in development, helpful or harmful depending on the economic conditions existing in any given country.

"The relationship between population growth and economic development is not a negative one," James Buckley, head of the US delegation, told surprised conferees.

But behind the headlines, which focused on the controversies at the two conferences, a consensus was taking shape on four issues that will be central to the deliberations that begin in Cairo Sept. 5:

* Rapid population growth can retard economic development.

* Governments should include strategies to slow population growth in their planning for social and economic development.

* A need exists for international action, including financial assistance, to support such strategies.

* Any solution to the population problem must include measures to expand the rights and roles of women.

In the run-up to Cairo, conference organizers have been cheered by a convergence of factors that augur well for success. …