Chevy Chase -- THE ROMAN Catholic Church's reaction to next month's United Nations Population Fund conference in Cairo is a monumental political blunder.
The Vatican should not have mentioned abortion and contraception. It should have stuck to the subject of the conference -- population control.
Pope John Paul II could simply have said that human life is the ultimate value and that interfering with reproductive liberty is a crime. But the church, like its critics, is drawn to the abortion wars like a moth to a flame.
Thus it allows the opponents of true reproductive freedom to steal the issue of personal liberty and thereby take the moral high ground. By so doing, it is subverting its own larger -- and admirable -- goals.
Some militant feminists have decided that while Pope John Paul II is trying to force them to have children they don't want, U.N. Population Fund programs are not what women need.
So the conference, which will be held in Cairo from Sept. 5-13, has already become a free-for-all.
But the bureaucracy will get its way -- population control is the central theme of the conference.
The world's leading example of population control is China. Its "family planning" one-child policy is pure coercion. It includes forcing IUD's into the wombs of 100 million women against their will. There are mandatory X-rays every three months to insure that the IUD's have not been removed.
Most of the population establishment, which backs the Cairo show, applauds China's programs.
The population activists now use their influence with the U.S. State Department to finance population-control programs in Africa with our aid programs and bribe African governments into cooperating.
Now comes the pope to get into a well-publicized argument with President Clinton about abortion and contraception.
Non-Catholics and even some Catholics like Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, interpret the pope's statements as amounting to coercion of Catholics to have more children than they would like to have.
There is a terrible irony here. The church has been the leading institution that celebrates human life as such and asserts that enabling a new person to enjoy life is a good in itself.
It does not urge people to have more children than a couple want and can afford.
It recognizes the human limitations of a family's resources and energies.
It does, however, hope that people will decide to have additional children and cheers when they do.
The church's great message about the value of life gets lost to many (including my fellow Jews) amid these quarrels and recriminations about abortion and contraception.
The church is the only participant in these proceedings that gets it right about the economics of population growth and economic development.
A supposed rationale for "population stabilization" is that lower population growth brings about faster economic growth. But the fact is that this proposition -- mainstream wisdom until the early '80s -- has been proved false.
In the 1980s, there was a U-turn in the consensus of population economists about the effects of population growth.
In 1986, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences almost completely reversed the view it expressed in 1971.
Its report noted that there was no statistical evidence of a negative connection between population increase and economic growth. And it said, "The scarcity of exhaustible resources is at most a minor restraint on economic growth."
So what will we get in Cairo? We'll get lots of acrimonious feminist rhetoric against the church and white males, providing an enjoyable occasion for the women and fine sound bites for the media, plus heartburn for the Vatican and maybe a lesson for the future.
And we'll get quiet success for the population controllers and U.N. bureaucrats who want to force women in poor countries to have fewer children than they want to bear -- with no benefit to the economies and environments these establishment members claim to be improving.
Julian L. Simon, who does research on population economics, is professor of business administration at the University of Maryland. He wrote this for the New York Times.