CAIRO, Egypt -- Delegates of most of the world's countries approved yesterday a liberal plan to try to rein in population growth by urging that women have more control over their pregnancies.
The plan of the international population conference describes abortion -- for the first time -- as a matter of women's health care and not as a moral issue, a matter that stirred great controversy between states represented here and the Roman Catholic Church and Islamic leaders.
The nine-day conference, which ended yesterday, urged that women be given authority and the contraceptive methods to decide whether and when to have children. The plan calls for better education and health care for women, more orderly migration policies for countries and speedier development in the Third World.
"It's an international document of remarkable proportions," said Timothy Wirth, the head of the U.S. delegation, which pushed hard for approval of the 20-year plan.
The Vatican withheld its full approval after tying up much of the conference in wrangling over the abortion issue. The Vatican did offer support for six chapters of the 16-chapter plan but balked at joining the final version. It had refused to endorse conclusions of the two previous global population conferences in 1974 and 1984.
"The final document recognizes abortion as a dimension of population policy," Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Vatican delegation, said. That was "a concept [the Vatican] cannot support for moral reasons."
More than a dozen other countries, most of them in Latin America, said that they agreed with the document but will file formal reservations, largely over the abortion issue. The plan then was approved without vote "by consensus" of the 182 countries there.
The plan is not binding on any country. But it does marshal official interest, directs foreign aid and spending of international organizations such as the World Bank, and provides a yardstick for action by governments committed to it.
The plan calls for world expenditures of $17 billion by 2000 on family planning programs, although there is no guarantee that much will be provided.
The two previous world conferences on population were more divisive but are credited by many with contributing to a sharp increase in use of contraceptives. Birth rates throughout the world are falling, though some experts say not fast enough to avoid catastrophic overcrowding.
The world's population, now 5.7 billion, is growing by a million every four days, a rate that would lead to a doubling in about 55 years, according to statistics provided here. Some question whether the earth can sustain that many people.
The agreement to boost the authority of women over childbearing indicates how worried countries are about overpopulation. This "women's empowerment" contradicts the traditional subservient role of women in many Third World countries and confronts legal restrictions on birth control and abortion in some First World countries.
"Frankly, the feminist movement could give this document pretty high marks," acknowledged Nicolas Biegman, the Netherlands chairman of the committee that negotiated the final plan. "The spirit of the document is on giving individuals and couples the right to choose . . . including the use of artificial contraception."
Significantly, the Vatican put up little fight to promotion of contraception, which also violates official Roman Catholic teaching.
But the Vatican saw in much of the language on women's empowerment an attempt by the Clinton Administration to advocate a worldwide right to abortion by women. Pope John Paul II launched a vehement and sometimes personal attack on the U.S. role at the conference.
In the end, both sides claimed victory. Abortion rights advocates said the conference for the first time avoided condemning the procedure, implicitly acknowledged that abortions occur despite laws, and urged that -- where legal -- abortions should be provided safely as part of the "reproductive rights" of women.
"I never thought we would come out of this conference with as much as we did," said Joan Dunlop, of the International Women's Health Coalition. "This is a progressive document. It pushes the envelope about as far as it can."
Anti-abortion advocates said they forced the U.S. delegates to reaffirm Reagan administration language that abortions should not be used as method of family planning. U.S. law still prohibits U.S. foreign aid from financing abortions.
"The radical, pro-abortion feminist movement clearly did not get what they wanted," said Jeanne Head, of the International Right to Life Federation. "If we hadn't been involved, we would have had a fundamental right to abortion in this document."
The Vatican was loudly criticized at the conference for its wrangling over abortion. But Nafis Sadik, the conference secretary-general, said yesterday "this process of chopping up sentences and stitching them back together again has produced a garment of many colors that fits us all."
An alliance between the Vatican and Islamic countries over the women's issues largely fizzled as moderate Muslim voices rejected a more radical view that Islam frowns on family planning.
The Muslim debate was crucial in Egypt, where the government has been under attack by radical Islamic fundamentalists. They criticized the conference as a Western evil, and threatened violence against foreigners who came.
The government threw on a massive blanket of security, and arrested thousands of suspected Islamic militants. There were no incidents.