AS the UN conference on population and development in Cairo reaches its fifth day, a special committee is to report again on the wording of a controversial paragraph, No. 8.25, dealing with abortion. Wisely, delegates referred the issue back to a committee, providing a respite from several days of furious debate. This has allowed the conference to deal with other key issues, such as a proposed $17 billion budget for the 20-year, nonbinding plan of action.
We hope the respite also allows a wider discussion of the critical role that the economic empowerment of women plays in regulating family size as well as in hastening a country's economic and social development. If policies are limited to demographics and numbers, the danger remains that statistics will be used to justify coercive and extreme measures, such as forced sterilization, to reduce population growth rates. Such approaches are just as corrosive to a woman's right to determine her reproductive choi ces as are approaches that discourage or limit the availability of contraceptives.
Yet the abortion paragraph will not go away. Nor will its opponents, most notably the Roman Catholic Church. Initially, the Vatican was joined by several Islamic countries. But as amended earlier this week, the paragraph has satisfied many of them, leaving the Vatican increasingly isolated and the target of attacks by other delegates, who feel that one institution is improperly narrowing the focus of and monopolizing the conference.
Popularity is not a proper basis from which to practice a religion. Yet it is time to move beyond this issue in this forum. Opposition to the original paragraph by religionists has improved it. It was amended to state clearly, for example, that ''in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.'' It emphasizes the goal of giving the highest priority to reducing the need for abortions. Yet the paragraph still appropriately leaves questions about the legality of abortion to individual n ations.
This conference does not have a final or mandatory say on abortion policy. Beyond a certain point, adamancy in the face of concessions becomes obstructionism -- a point quickly being reached in Cairo. The Vatican and others have important things to say about poverty and economic development, also subjects for this conference. They do themselves a disservice if they allow the shouting over abortion to drown out their message on these other issues.