Cairo Conference Shifts Focus of Population Effort

AFTER nine days of painstaking debate, the International Conference on Population and Development ended Tuesday with a compromise plan that for the first time stresses the importance of women in efforts to curb the rapid growth of the human family.

The 113-page final ``Programme of Action'' allows all sides to claim victory: It strengthens the position of the Vatican and its allies on abortion and family; vindicates Muslim countries from charges of extremism by compromising on language relating to homosexuality; and gives women more control over decisions relating to reproduction.

The plan aims to stabilize population at about 7.27 billion in 2015, up from the current level of roughly 5.7 billion, but well below an estimate of 12.5 billion in 2050 if growth rates are not slowed.

Delegates said their aim was to reach a consensus with all nations so that governments could not easily dismiss the document. The text is not legally binding, but is likely to be used as a reference for governments and activists in shaping family-planning policies.

``The most important thing was saving face back home,'' said one European diplomat who was a key negotiator in drafting the document. ``Everyone has to be a winner, even the Vatican.''

SOME developing countries criticized the conference for bogging down in language that failed to address the summit's stated purpose.

Unlike population conferences in Romania in 1974 and Mexico in 1984, the Cairo summit was expected to move beyond talk of whether contraceptives alone can slow the earth's swelling masses. It was supposed to focus on educating young girls and providing health care for poor women.

But delegates argued for hours, and sometimes days, over language pertaining to abortion and terms such as ``reproductive health,'' ``fertility regulation,'' and ``regulation of fertility.''

``How can it [the conference] be a success when it has sidelined all the main issues,'' said Kaplena Mehta of the Women's Caucus. ``There cannot be reproductive health for women who don't have food or medicine.''

``We had 1-1/2 weeks to attract the attention of the world media to issues like women, education, the environment, and financing family planning,'' says Nicolaas Biegman of the Netherlands, vice chairman of the main negotiating committee here. ``Instead, the only thing that gets any attention is abortion, which is a marginal thing in the total context of the document. It's a pity.''

But a few hardy optimists, willing to make a virtue of necessity, say that in one sense, the Vatican's intransigence may have been a blessing in disguise.

``The Vatican made the Cairo conference front-page news,'' says Stephen Goldstein, managing editor of ``Population Reports,'' published by Johns Hopkins University in Washington. ``If there had been consensus in Cairo, the confer-ence would have been a page-four story.''

Unlike the previous two conferences, the Vatican endorsed the Cairo plan. The compromise section on abortion reads: ``In no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.''

The summit did address women's rights in the developing world. The UN document says people have the right to decide freely the number and spacing of their children. They also have the right to reproductive health, defined as a ``state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being in all matters relating to reproduction.''

The document urges the prohibition of female circumcision, condemns rape, and recognizes ``unsafe abortion'' as a public-health problem. ``The conference made population policy broader than just contraceptives,'' said Nafis Sadik, the secretary-general of the conference.

Some women from nongovernmental organizations voiced skepticism. ``We wanted to talk about men and how to make them more responsible for the population problem,'' said Frances Perrow of Marie Stopes International, a group involved in family planning in developing nations. ``But all I heard was deadlock, deadlock over abortion.''

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