UN Population Conference: Vatican enters spirit of give and take: Holy See accepts most of 20-year plan to limit world numbers

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NEARLY ALL of the world's nations yesterday put their names to a United Nations document which, should they abide by it, will help defuse the population bomb and improve the rights, education and healthcare of women.

It is a big if. The Vatican entered the spirit of compromise after nine days of intensive negotiation. It praised parts of the 20-year action plan and declared that it wanted to 'join the consensus even if in an incomplete and partial manner'. The Holy See said it could accept a large part of the 113- page text.

Many delegates had expected it to disown the entire document, as happened in Mexico and Bucharest at the last two important UN population conferences 10 and 20 years ago. Ten Catholic countries, eight from Latin America, entered reservations stating that they disagreed with small parts of the text, which they saw as condoning legal abortion. But half of the Latin America nations expressed no dissent, including Brazil and Mexico. A smaller number of Muslim nations, including Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Jordan entered minor reservations.

Some are worried about abortion, but the main Arab concern was with the phrase 'couples and individuals'. They felt this could be seen as endorsing gay and lesbian 'marriages' - a Western notion they cannot entertain. The Vatican delegation's chief, Mgr Renato Martino, told delegates that by accepting part of the document the Pope was not changing any of the Church's strictures on sex outside of marriage, abortion, contraception, sterilisation and the use of condoms to avoid Aids. The Holy See, an observer at the Cairo conference because of its unusual status as a nation state, only sanctions abstinence or natural methods of avoiding conception. Abortion is explicitly condemned as a birth-control method in the Cairo text. The document is not legally binding. Fred Sai, a Ghanaian doctor and family planning expert who chaired the main committee, told delegates: 'This text has no value at all if it doesn't lead to countries implementing it.'

During the conference the threat to humanity from rapid population growth has hardly been mentioned. Nor does the document set any targets for the population of individual countries or for the world; there is no prospect of any international agreement on that. But what the conference shows is that most developing countries, where population growth rates are highest, are determined to lower the average number of children each couple has. They are making the running on population control. Fertility rates have declined rapidly in the past 20 years, partly because of family planning programmes and sometimes brutal coercion, partly because more affluent, educated, better cared for people choose to have smaller families.

The latest UN figures put the world's population annual growth rate at 1.59 per cent, compared with a 1992 estimated of 1.72. The organisation now forecasts a global population of 9.83 billion in 2050, compared with 5.63 billion now.

(Photograph omitted)