The Numbers Crunch

updated 09/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Amid protests from the Vatican and angry condemnation from militant Muslim clerics over issues such as abortion, the International Conference on Population and Development will open in Cairo on Sept. 5. For one week, the world's attention—or at least that of the 20,000 participants in attendance—will be focused on how to balance the Earth's resources with its growing population. "In the next 10 years there is an opportunity to do something about the future of the world before the numbers become catastrophic and the population gets out of control," says Pakistani-born Dr. Nafis Sadik, 66, a former obstetrician who has been executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) since 1987 and is secretary general of the conference. Recently, Dr. Sadik, herself a mother of five, met with senior writer Marjorie Rosen in New York City to discuss some of the issues the delegates will confront.

What is the ICPD's major goal?

To agree on programs to ensure that in 20 years the world's population (now 5.8 billion) will be nearer 7.8 billion than the 10.8 billion projected. If we fail, everyone's quality of life will erode.

What are the likely flash points of the Cairo conference?

Not surprisingly, abortion rights and teenage sex education. We recognize both as facts of life and try to deal with them honestly. Another is money. We have asked the developed countries to pick up the tab for one-third of the $17 billion cost of all our health and educational programs; the remaining two-thirds will be paid by the poorer countries. But the biggest flash point is the role women play. Many countries—and individuals—have trouble with giving women equal rights as human beings.

Hasn't the Vatican already criticized the ICPD plan?

First, let me say that everyone, including the Vatican, agrees on 90 percent of the program. But the Vatican wants only natural family planning as a contraceptive method, whereas we advocate all scientifically approved birth control. Then the Vatican insists we cannot include abortion as a means of family planning. Well, 50 to 60 million abortions are performed each year; this is fact. Today 173 countries allow it to save the mother's life; 118 for her health.

How have the Catholic church and Islamic fundamentalists suddenly become allies?

For weeks the Vatican has been talking to Islamic conservatives. They are trying to form alliances based not only on opposition to family planning but on issues like contraception for teenagers and homosexuality.

Why are the Muslims so unhappy?

I'm not sure that they are. We have heard from some vocal groups, but I'm not sure whom they represent. After all, are the Catholics unhappy because the Pope is? Every Latin American country and nearly all Muslim countries have family-planning programs.

What are the difficulties in discouraging population growth?

To change to smaller-sized families we must overcome great cultural barriers. Many women don't want to have a lot of children, but their status in many developing countries is derived from the number of sons they have. The ICPD proposes reproductive health services and education—particularly for young girls, but also for men, to teach them to share family responsibilities.

What effect is the AIDS epidemic having on world population?

We have many studies on the demographic impact of AIDS, and even in the worst-scenario cases, at this moment, there's not going to be any significant effect. Ironically, AIDS has had some positive effect. AIDS awareness has helped eliminate resistance by men to the use of condoms, especially in Africa, and has helped promote family planning.

Since you came to the UNFPA in 1971, what has been achieved?

When we started, a few countries had family-planning programs. Today every country does. Also sensitivity to family planning has more or less disappeared, and contraceptive usage has gone up from 10 percent in the 1960s to over 55 percent. Today about 350 million couples have access to services. The size of the family in the developing world used to be six or seven; it's now three in some countries, and below three in many East Asian countries.

If you could send one message to each government, what would it be?

Please let women have the services they are demanding. That is what we have not been doing. If we had been, we might be at a different point altogether.

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