The Pope crusades against UN birth control

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THE POPE is marshalling his divisions for a battle to stop the United Nations from advocating artificial contraception and the right of women to safe and legal abortion, in its efforts to contain world population growth.

Catholic countries and leaders of other religions are being pressed to join the Vatican's campaign to change the planned final document of the UN Conference on Population and Development, to be held in Cairo in September.

A meeting of 114 of the Church's 139 cardinals approved a resolution declaring 'the failed social policies of many developed countries should not be foisted on the world's poor . . . neither the Cairo conference nor any other forum should lend itself to cultural imperialism.' It complained that the draft UN document paid too little attention to development and too much to population control.

The resolution, drawn up by Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, said that the document would lead to 'abortion on demand, sexual promiscuity and distorted notions of the family.'

The European council of Catholic bishops has condemned the draft document as 'ethically unacceptable' and has insisted that each state 'must protect life from conception to natural death.'

President Menem of Argentina has sent a letter to Latin American heads of state, seeking a common front against the Pope's cause. Several of these countries, the Philippines and some African states are reported to support him. The Pope has called in the ambassadors accredited to the Vatican and has written to the world's heads of state.

But his biggest setback so far has been his failure, despite a telephone call and a recent meeting in Rome, to persuade President Bill Clinton to change his support for the UN document.

The Vatican's main target is the document's advocacy of safe, legal abortion. UN officials have explained that abortion is not intended as a means of population control, and argue that family planning education should prevent a large proportion of unwanted pregnancies. But since illegal - and therefore usually dangerous - abortions account for an estimated quarter of a million women's deaths each year, it should be tackled as a health risk and made medically safe.

The Vatican argues that this would open the way to abortion on demand and to interruption of pregnancy as a legal means of birth control. Contraception, it maintains, encourages promiscuity.

Officials also object to the document's language, which they see as the work of American feminists who, they argue, are not representative of the world's population.