As the United Nations International Conference on Population in Mexico City draws near, the White House is gingerly retreating from its proposed position on US family-planning aid to other countries.
The White House stirred an uproar when it proposed recently that the United States cut off all family-planning aid to governments or organizations that advocate abortion. Right-to-life groups strongly support such a move. The diplomatic and scientific community is intensely opposed.
A high administration official says White House chief of staff James A. Baker III is working hard to bring the two sides together. ''We would not adopt a position to cut off all (family planning) aid to a country unless it prohibits abortion,'' says the official, ''but will continue the policy of the past eight years.''
Unless the White House draft position, prepared by the Office of Policy Development, is reversed, such countries as India and Bangladesh stand to lose up to $120 million a year in family-planning aid.
Also at issue is the head of the US delegation to the conference, which begins Aug. 6 and will be attended by some 140 nations. James L. Buckley, former US undersecretary of state for security affairs, is under consideration to lead the delegation.
While at the State Department Mr. Buckley, a conservative, vigorously opposed US population programs. Whether he would undertake leadership of the delegation if the White House draft position is changed is an open question at this writing.
Population planning groups oppose the Buckley appointment. ''It would be an unfortunate signal to countries overseas because of his open hostility to population-control efforts,'' says Sharon Camp, vice-president of the Population Crisis Committee. ''And with his tie now with Radio Free Europe he would be viewed simply as an American propagandist.''
Some population experts say the White House can work out a compromise in Mexico that embraces President Reagan's economic and family views without overturning present US policy.Such a statement, for example, could stress his opposition to abortion, the partipation of private enterprise in population-control efforts, and improvement of government programs.
''Countries like India are moving in more pragmatic directions and away from ideological socialism,'' says population consultant Marshall Green. ''The Reagan administration can claim some credit for this new climate and call for countries to pursue population policies in realistic ways while trying to minimize abortion.''
Present US policy prohibits the use of American aid for abortion services. The White House concern, the high administration official says, is that US family-planning assistance to governments and private organizations be kept segregated and not enable them to use other funds for abortion services.
Population-control groups counter that this does not happen. For instance, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, incorporating more than 100 organizations around the world, has an elaborate accounting system to monitor use of American family-planning aid. ''Not a penny goes into abortion,'' Dr. Camp says.
Reaction to the White House draft paper has come also from the National Security Council. According to informed sources, national-security adviser Robert McFarlane was upset when the draft position paper also bore the imprimatur of the NSC and has separated himself from it. A White House aide says that the NSC had nothing to do with drafting of the paper. ''It is simply the channel of communication with the State Department and other agencies,'' the aide said.
Right-to-life groups charge that the US, through its aid to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, is helping such countries as China carry out abortion activities. Population specialists say that the UNFPA aid given China was almost entirely computer hardware to run a census and had nothing to do with abortion.
The aid issue confronts President Reagan with a politically sensitive problem. He does not wish to anger Roman Catholic and other voters who would like the US to take a tougher stand on abortion. But, in foreign policy terms, he is being made aware of the importance of bringing population growth under control in the third world.