CAIRO, Egypt -- The United States is trying to downplay the dispute over abortion at the international conference on population, but opponents say they do not trust the Clinton administration.
The conference of 170 nations formally opened yesterday, and Vice President Al Gore sought to portray the criticism of his country's stand on abortion as a "lingering misunderstanding."
But the Vatican, Islamic critics and abortion opponents remained wary. They believe that the Clinton administration is plotting to upend policies remaining from the Reagan administration prohibiting U.S. aid for abortions.
Abortion has become a touchstone of emotion at the conference. To the frustration of U.S. and United Nations officials, it threatens to overshadow the more widespread agreement at the conference on the problem of global overcrowding.
"The Cairo Conference represents one of those rare and basic moments when the community of nations points the way toward its common future," said U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as he formally opened the nine-day conference.
"It would be inadmissible to rely on some kind of law of nature, to allow wars, disasters, famine or disease to regulate the world's growth."
Noting the criticism surrounding the conference's blueprint for action, Mr. Boutros-Ghali called on the nations attending the conference to observe three principles of conduct: rigor, tolerance and conscience.
"The success of our conference depends upon our efforts to overcome our apparent divisions, our temporary differences, our ideological and cultural barriers," he said.
But the opening session was enlivened most by a speech by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the prime minister of Norway, in which she bluntly addressed the abortion issue.
"None of us, regardless of our religion, can deny that abortion exists," said the physician-turned-politician. "Morality becomes hypocrisy" when it accepts the deaths and injuries of women in unsafe, illegal abortions, she said.
When she called for "decriminalizing abortions," the audience of more than 1,000 erupted in sustained applause.
The other woman prime minister to speak at the opening session, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, defied the condemnation of Islamic conservatives in order to attend the conference. She, too, called for family planning and women's rights, a bold stand in her predominantly Muslim country.
"Leaders are not elected to let a vocal, narrow-minded minority dictate an agenda of backwardness," she said. But she drew the line at abortion.
"Kill not your children on a plea of want," she quoted from the Koran. "Islam, except in exceptional circumstances, rejects abortion as a method of population planning."
By contrast, Mr. Gore struck moderate themes in his speech, and only briefly mentioned abortion. But the issue dogged him throughout the day. As he spoke in small groups and to journalists, he faced questions on abortion.
Shortly after taking office in January 1993, the Clinton administration reversed several administrative restrictions placed by the Reagan and Bush administrations on the use of federal money for abortion counseling.
President Clinton restored federal funding to groups, such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which provide abortion counseling.
But U.S. law still restricts use of federal funding for abortions overseas. Mr. Gore insists that the administration does not want to use abortion as a method of family planning; that is better done with contraceptives, he said.
"Let us take a false issue off the table," he said. "The United States does not seek to establish a new international right to abortion, and we do not believe that abortion should be encouraged as a method of family planning."
Pope John Paul II and the Vatican have mounted a strenuous and continuing attack against the population conference and against the United States' family planning policies. Last week, the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, made an unusual personal denunciation of Mr. Gore.
The Vatican aide accused Mr. Gore of misrepresenting the U.S. position. On Sunday, the pontiff complained that the conference was creating a "dangerous shortcut" to abortion.
As in the United States, much of the argument here about abortion is over shades of meanings in formal language. The proposed document to be considered at the population conference does not advocate legalized abortion. But it does call for women's rights over the decision to bear a child and urges that complete health care be given to women.
Those opposed to abortion say such statements mask an attempt to encourage abortions throughout the world.
"The document is permeated with language that would implicitly or explicitly promote the use of abortion for family planning," said Jeanne Head, an official of the International Right to Life Federation.
For example, Ms. Head opposes language that advocates a "full range of reproduction services," and phrases such as "fertility control" and "safe motherhood" and "reproductive health care."
"They are talking about eliminating unsafe abortions, and the way they say to do that is to make abortion legal," she argues.
Mr. Gore, in a meeting with American journalists, insisted that there is no change in U.S. policy, and strongly denied that the United States is attempting to force other countries to legalize abortion.
"I can't believe anybody really has that view. If they do, they are certainly mistaken," the vice president said.
Others close to the U.S. delegation privately acknowledged that the administration was attempting to soften its positions to avoid confrontation. "Clinton doesn't want to cause ripples on this," said one official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used.
The document to be adopted at the end of the eight-day population conference will have no force of law on any of the participating countries. But abortion opponents believe that world bodies such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank will require adherence to the document as a requirement for assistance.
They also say that nations that approve the document will come under increasing pressure to change their own laws to conform with the U.N. document.