ASK any of the 3,500 delegates to the United Nations population conference meeting here if the last week has been a wonderful time, and the response is likely to be a resounding ``no.''
``It's been like swimming in molasses,'' one exasperated conference spokesman sighed Friday after being enmeshed for five straight days in a Vatican-led controversy over abortion.
But ask any delegate whether the conference has been worthwhile, and the response is just as likely to be a resounding ``yes.''
Although obscured by endless wrangling over abortion, the Cairo conference, like the two previous UN population conferences, is likely to make a significant contribution to what most here regard as the urgent task of slowing population growth.
``These conferences do have an effect,'' says Joseph Chamie, who is deputy director-general of the conference, which will be gaveled to a close tomorrow.
Delegates hustled over the weekend to resolve disputes about language in the conference's 113-page draft program pertaining to abortion, sex, and gender. The European Union is fighting to defend language on sexual rights, while Muslim governments challenge expressions such as ``marriages and other unions.'' Muslim delegates seek to avoid domestic objections by settling on language that cannot be interpreted as immoral.
Dr. Chamie says that despite similar highly publicized disagreements at the two earlier UN population conferences - in Bucharest in 1974 and Mexico City in 1984 - nearly all developing nations came away convinced that reducing population growth was essential to improving economic performance.
The family-planning programs most of those nations have established since have had dramatic effects, increasing contraceptive use worldwide from 10 to 55 percent and lowering family size from an average of more than six children to around four.
Experts here say the main contribution of the Cairo conference has been to redefine the preconditions to stabilizing global population growth.
Instead of focusing entirely on family-planning programs, which meet the needs of women who already want to limit the size of their families, the conference's ``Program of Action'' addresses the circumstances of those who don't.
Millions of poor women want many children, especially male children, because they are the only source of status and old-age economic security.
By empowering women and providing better reproductive health care, the Cairo document says, governments can directly or indirectly lower the demand for large families and broaden family-planning programs to include all aspects of reproductive health.
``What you've basically done is to provide political cover for leaders who want to move in areas like female education or providing reproductive health services to adolescents,'' notes long-term population activist Sharon Camp. ``For politicians to take risks, they need this safety net of an international document. This is what Cairo has done, and it's very important.''
The Cairo document will also be a powerful instrument in the hands of population activists, women's groups, and environmentalists seeking to prod for change after they return home from Cairo.
``They're going to take this document to their governments, and they're going to insist on accountability,'' says Joan Dunlop, president of the International Women's Health Coalition.
The Cairo conference, meanwhile, has energized the work of nongovernmental organizations by providing a forum for sharing lessons on everything from administering family-planning programs and reducing infant mortality to broadening the legal, social, and economic rights of women.
Finally, the conference will lend impetus to two future UN conferences - the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen in March 1995, and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995 - that will deal with many of the same issues the delegates in Cairo have grappled with.
From the beginning, UN officials have said that the ultimate yardstick for success in Cairo would be unanimity, which is one reason the conference has bent over backward to try to accommodate the objections of the Vatican to wording in the Program of Action on issues of abortion and reproductive health.
Technically, consensus means unanimity. But by the unique rules that apply to UN conferences, the concept of unanimity can be stretched to accommodate reservations and even the Vatican's anticipated final decision to dissent from the entire document, as it did in Bucharest and Mexico City.
The reason: On well over 90 percent of the issues under discussion in Cairo, there was virtual agreement.
``This absolutely represents a good blueprint for the next 20 years,'' insists Chamie.
``The Vatican's decision does not detract from the value of the document, now any more than in Bucharest and Mexico City,'' concurs another senior conference source. ``The train rolls on, with or without the Vatican.''
Whether consensus is actually translated into measures needed to slow global population growth remains to be seen. Language in the final document establishes the principle that the money needed to pay for family-planning and reproductive-health services and to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases - $17 billion by the year 2000, with increases in later years - should be shared on a two-thirds to one-third basis, with the developing nations themselves picking up the larger share.
But the conference deferred decision on a nonbinding ``20/20'' proposal advanced by several UN agencies. Under the plan, developing nations would agree to devote 20 percent of their domestic budgets - and donor nations 20 percent of their foreign aid - to social services like health, nutrition, and education, especially for girls.
``Consensus is reached, but implementation is less certain unless the international community mobilizes the necessary resources,'' says J. Joseph Speidel, president of the Washington-based Population Action International.