Vatican fights for 'sexual morality': Robert Fisk in Cairo finds population conference lost in sea of semantics

THE US Vice-President, Al Gore, tried - and failed - yesterday to moderate the Vatican's objections to the UN draft report on population, while delegates spent hours searching for linguistic formulas that would avoid the very word 'abortion'.

The World Health Organisation director general, Hiroshi Nakajima, abandoned the phrase 'fertility regulation' - two words which have enraged the Pope - in favour of 'culturally appropriate family planning services' but all, it seemed, to no avail.

The Vatican's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro, again condemned the draft report of the conference. 'The Holy See cannot give explicit or implicit support to those parts of the document regarding abortion,' he said, rejecting any 'weakening' of the definition of the family or provision to give adolescents confidential 'sexual health care'.

Many Western nations are privately expressing anger and irritation with the Pope for the crisis that is now turning a 20-year plan for population control into a debate on sexual morality. Several women's groups have said that they suspect the Pope is trying to disrupt the conference because he has been unable to persuade Catholics to abandon artifical birth control.

Mr Gore invited Archbishop Renato Martino, the leader of the Vatican delegation, to his hotel to 'explain the context' of his speech on Monday, in which he told delegates that America was not advocating an 'international right' to abortion. Vatican 'misunderstandings,' he said, had been 'significantly dispelled' by his meeting with the archbishop.

But Mr Gore made similar remarks after the Pope's recent outburst on abortion and, sure enough, the Papal spokesman said yesterday that countries could not pick and choose policies on abortion from the document.

Delegates are now discussing - in secret - two chapters in the document which contain a number of references to sexual issues, in the hope that lack of publicity may concentrate minds. It seems unlikely to succeed. 'Abortion does exist and is a reality for many women,' Germany's Interior Minister, Manfred Kanther, said. 'It must be dealt with in this conference.' Dr Nakajima thought it would be a 'sad irony' if efforts to increase women's rights were reduced to an abortion debate.

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