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The Cairo Conference

THE International Conference on Population and Development convenes in Cairo on Monday at a moment when the consensus has never been greater among scientists, demographers, and political leaders worldwide about the need to reduce global population growth.

It is encouraging to see that the United States is part of that consensus. At the UN population conference in Mexico in 1984, Reagan administration representatives argued that population growth was a neutral factor in economic development. Yet effectively run family-planning programs have shown a strong link between improved economic conditions and controlling fertility. Washington's change of approach puts the US in a strong position to support noncoercive population programs as a key part of development.

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More encouraging is an emphasis on giving women in developing countries a greater voice and more choices in family-planning decisions, as well as more opportunities to raise their education and economic levels. To the extent that population programs grow around these elements, they reinforce human dignity and progress.

Not surprisingly, these same elements have invited the strongest attacks, particularly from religious traditions that see in the draft plan a wider door to permissiveness, immorality, and the erosion of the family. These concerns should not be taken lightly. Human reproduction cannot be left to clinical or numerical argument; it has a deeply moral and spiritual dimension. But the poverty and environmental degradation that force husbands into cities to search for work, or parents to sell their children into servitude or worse, hardly strengthens the family. These conditions do not allow husbands or wives to adequately attend to the moral and religious upbringing of their children. And fear, repression, and ignorance, if unchecked, could relegate large numbers of women to the status of reproductive machines.

Such opposition also fails to speak to migration that results from population pressure and feeds nationalism, racism, and conflict. Ironically, the conference itself faces a threat of violence from radical Islamists who oppose its objectives.

The draft plan of action may not be perfect. But it represents a good-faith effort to balance realistic short-term approaches for immediate effect with longer-term approaches. The plan provides a useful map on which nations can chart their own course.

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