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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Controversy Dogs World Population Conference

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.

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 UN-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 UN population projection.

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

It contains a number of proposals backed by the Vatican, including education for girls and primary health care for women and infants. A lower birth rate, for example, has been linked to improved literacy and a reduction in infant mortality.

But references to making legal abortions and contraceptives accessible has infuriated the Vatican. Meanwhile, the Vatican's attempts at claiming the moral high ground have angered its opponents.

"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, 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.

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.

But what, say its opponents, of predictions by demographers, scientists and policy makers of a future population-food crisis?

Scarcity will fall most heavily on those already poor, 800 million of whom are malnourished today, according to the United Nations.

The disparity between the haves and have nots, some believe, will spur further emigration, competition for resources and threaten social and political upheaval in hard-pressed regions.

But the Vatican dismisses warnings of a "population bomb" as simplistic slogans that fail to recognize that many countries with relatively high birth rates have an abundance of uninhabited land and undeveloped resources.