A MAJOR United Nations meeting in New York this week is setting the scene for how the world handles population growth into the 21st century.
Earlier international population conferences were held in 1974 and 1984, but the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development to convene in Cairo this September is far more ambitious - and, therefore, more controversial - in the scope of problems to be addressed.
Among the values-laden issues governmental representatives are wrestling with at the third and last UN conference preparatory committee meeting that opened for three weeks on April 4:
Abortion's role in family planning, men's responsibilities in controlling family size and rearing children, the treatment of women by societies and spouses, the education gap between girls and boys in developing nations, sexually transmitted diseases, the growing disparity between rich and poor, immigration's role in affecting population trends, population growth's impact on food production and the environment, and rights of indigenous peoples.
Nafis Sadik, executive director of the UN Population Fund and secretary-general of the 170-nation Cairo conference, points out the importance of reducing growth rates that result in an additional 90 million people each year.
``World population today is 5.7 billion,'' she says. ``It will reach either 7.27 billion or 7.92 billion by the year 2015, depending on what we do over the next two decades. That's a difference of 660 million people, nearly equivalent to the current population of Africa.''
Shift to `women's empowerment'
If there is a major philosophical difference in the 1994 version of the once-a-decade international conference on population, it is the shift from ``population control'' to ``women's empowerment'' - especially in areas of reproductive health, education, and economic opportunities, which planners of the UN conference see as closely linked to fertility rates.
``Economic growth and improvement of quality of life have been fastest in those areas where women have higher status, and slowest where they face the greatest disadvantages,'' states the draft ``Programme of Action'' now being debated in New York.
While observing that ``significant changes'' have occurred in the role and status of women, the UN document also notes that ``in some communities, the failure of men to meet their family responsibilities means that women are left as the principal or only source of support for themselves and their children in up to 40 percent of all households.''
Other gender-gap figures are cited as well: 70 percent of the 130 million children not enrolled in primary school are girls; two-thirds of the world's 960 million illiterate adults are women; higher rates of mortality among girls in some countries ``suggest that `son preference' may curtail the access of girl children to food and health care.''
As it was at the Earth Summit in Brazil two years ago, environmental degradation is seen as a direct result of overpopulation and overconsumption. And this is linked to social inequality and economic disparity, UN planners assert.
``Overall, there is a much broader understanding of how everything connects,'' says Susan Weber, executive director of the research and advocacy group Zero Population Growth.
This year's UN population conference is unique in the heavy role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world. Some 700 groups are involved in the New York meetings, some as part of official delegations, others as influential observers. In the United States, 60 organizations representing environmentalists, women, churches, foundations, and others have formed the ``US Network for Cairo.''
Abortion is addressed
The ``Programme of Action'' deals delicately with abortion, specifically advocating the controversial procedure only in cases of rape and incest. ``All attempts should be made to eliminate the need for abortion,'' the plan states.
But it goes on to say: ``The aim of family-planning [programs] must be to establish the widest possible freedom of choice in matters of procreation.'' The call for ``choice'' - to many a codeword for abortion - is made several times in the UN draft document now being refined for its presentation at Cairo.
The Vatican is working hard to put its stamp on the UN population meeting and any calls for international action that result. Pope John Paul II met with Dr. Sadik March 18. In his message to the UN population director, the pope said: ``The Church stands opposed to the imposition of limits on family size,'' and he called abortion ``a heinous evil ... never an acceptable method of family planning.''
Another controversial issue at Cairo is likely to be the cost of fulfilling the goals now being crafted. According to UN estimates, population and reproductive health programs as a portion of ``official development assistance'' (foreign aid) must increase from 1.4 percent to 4 percent. And while developing countries will have to provide two-thirds of the total resources, donor countries will have to increase their contribution to $4.4 billion a year by the year 2000. This is four times the current level.