WHAT a difference a decade can make.
At the last United Nations-sponsored conference on global population, held in Mexico City in 1984, the United States delegation declared population growth a ``neutral phenomenon'' having no particular impact on economic, environmental, or social challenges. Shortly thereafter the Reagan administration sharply curtailed US support for international family-planning programs.
But as delegates from more than 170 nations begin to gather in Cairo for the UN's International Conference on Population and Development, which opens Sept. 5, the Clinton administration is eagerly assuming a leadership role.
Addressing the National Academy of Sciences in Washington earlier this summer, President Clinton spoke of the need for ``launching new, high-quality, voluntary family-planning and reproductive-health programs.''
``Our goal is to make these programs available to every citizen in the world by early in the next century,'' Mr. Clinton said. ``Parents must have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.''
The administration has backed its rhetoric with action. Clinton had barely unpacked at the White House last year when he resumed US funding for international family-planning and reproductive- health programs. Such funding has jumped sharply in each of the past two years to $595 million for the current fiscal year, a figure the administration would like to see keep going up.
Clinton created a high-level State Department post - undersecretary for global affairs - with a portfolio that includes population. He also named a special task force on population as part of his Council on Sustainable Development. Domestically, Clinton appointed as surgeon general a strong advocate of birth control, and he favors clinical trials of the nonsurgical abortion drug RU-486.
``The Cairo conference officially heralds the return of the United States as a leader in global population issues,'' says Susan Weber, executive director of the private group Zero Population Growth, based in Washington.
The UN conference will consider a broad ``program of action'' for the next 20 years, intended to stabilize world population, now 5.6 billion, at 7.8 billion by the year 2050. The 118-page draft document to be discussed in Cairo includes ambitious goals: family planning services available to all who want them, improved health and education facilities, economic development, environmental protection. A major theme throughout is better treatment of women.
``Part and parcel of our strategy is the promotion of the social, political, and economic rights of women - extraordinarily important resources for growth and agents of change,'' US Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth told the National Press Club last month.
Clinton policy attacked
While there is general bipartisan support in the US for population programs, the Clinton administration has come under attack for its position and policies.
The bulk of the criticism has come from the Roman Catholic Church, whose officials have accused the administration of being pro-abortion and anti-family.
In response, administration officials have tried to downplay the differences it has with the church over family planning (the Vatican approves only periodic abstinence to prevent pregnancy) while emphasizing their mutual support for improved health services, education, environmental protection, and social equity.
Memo to the church
In its communications with Catholic Church officials regarding the Cairo conference, the administration also has stressed its support for families.
In a recent letter to Archbishop John Cardinal O'Connor of New York, Mr. Wirth wrote, ``Let me state without qualification: the Clinton administration is deeply committed to doing all it can to encourage the well-being of the traditional family: two parents united in an enduring commitment of love to each other and their children.''
On abortion, Clinton repeatedly states that the procedure should be ``safe, legal, and rare.'' In essence, this is the official UN position. Providing contraceptives and other family-planning services, advocates say, will diminish the need for abortion to end unwanted pregnancies.
According to the US State Department, 173 of 190 nations in the world permit abortion under some circumstances. Still, US officials acknowledge the issue will be a key one at Cairo.
``We do not imagine we will ever put the abortion debate to rest - differences go too deep,'' Vice President Al Gore Jr. (who will lead the US delegation in Cairo) told reporters at the National Press Club last week. ``But we believe that our approach maximizes the range of possible consensus and reduces the remaining disagreements to manageable proportions.''
Clinton officials see the need to control population growth and its impact on limited natural resources as a key global issue.
Citing recent developments in Rwanda, Haiti, and the Mexican State of Chiapas, Undersecretary Wirth says, ``Current conflicts offer a grim foreshadowing of the anarchy that could engulf more and more nations if we fail to act.''