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World Population Conference Sets Stage for Confrontation

By Larry B. Stammer
Los Angeles Times

The stage is set for a confrontation between two world views -one secular, another sacred - when 180 nations gather in Cairo, Egypt, next month at the International Conference on Population and Development to debate global strategies for stabilizing world population.

Incensed by the inclusion of abortion and contraception, Pope John Paul II has mounted one of the most intensive diplomatic offensives by the Vatican in recent memory to bend an international program into conformity with Catholic teaching.

"We cannot accept the systematic death of the unborn," Pope John Paul said earlier this year. "Every family must know how to resist the false sirens of the culture of death." He condemned contraception as "an assault on the sacredness of life" and "contrary to moral law."

Equally adamant, U.N. officials, the Clinton administration as well as Catholic dissidents and leaders of other denominations and faiths are no less certain of their own moral grounding.

How does the Vatican maintain the moral high ground of defending the sanctity of human life and the "dignity of the family" when the consequences of its opposition to contraception and legal abortion seem to many scientists, demographers and policy makers to be self-defeating?

The world's population, now numbering 5.6 billion, has doubled since mid-century. It is growing at a rate of about 90 million a year - roughly equal to the population of Mexico.

At issue is a U.N.-sponsored 20-year program to stabilize world population at 7.27 billion by the year 2050. Unless the brakes are applied, world population could reach 8.9 billion by 2030, leveling off at 11.5 billon about 2150, according to a U.N. population projection.

Although it is not binding, the Cairo plan would serve as an internationally recognized model as nations fashion their own population policies.

The Vatican is having difficulty laying exclusive claim to the moral high ground.

"Calling those with whom they disagree spiritually false, politically imperialist, morally and ethically deficient is as intolerant as it is self-righteously arrogant," Rabbi Balfour Brickner, a co-founder of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, told reporters earlier this week.

In Brussels, Belgium, 24 religious thinkers from a dozen variants of major world religions convened at the behest of the Ford Foundation and the Pew Global Stewardship Initiative to fashion a religious response to the Vatican.

"We don't dare let the pope pull off the notion that one side of this is moral because it opposes contraception and the other side is immoral and less religious," said Martin E. Marty, a noted religion scholar from the University of Chicago who chaired the Brussels meeting in May.

Some, like the Rev. Gordon L. Sommers, president of the National Council of Churches, questioned the morality of denying contraceptives to poor women when there are 25 million unsafe and illegal abortions each year. Others speak of the Biblical imperative of stewardship of God's creation.

At the heart of the Vatican's opposition to contraception and abortion is the belief that every person, as a creation of God, has a dignity and worth that is unconditional and inalienable.