The UN population conference in Cairo ended nine days of heated debate on 13 September with a compromise agreement on slowing world population growth over the next 20 years. There were some reservations from the Vatican and some Catholic and Muslim countries, but no outright opposition.

If the non-binding programme succeeds, world population, now 5,670 million, will remain below 7,500 million in 2015, says the UN. If it fails, the world could have up to 7,920 million people in 2015 and 12,500 million in 2050.

The thrust of the plan is to slow population growth by making family planning available worldwide and by giving women more power over their own lives, especially childbearing. The recommendations in the 98-page document are subject to the sovereign right of each country, national laws and respect for religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds.

The document says the family is the basic unit of society; people have reproductive rights, which include the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children; all countries should provide access to counselling and services, and adolescents should have confidential advice on sexual matters but parents have a responsibility to guide them; and governments should help women to avoid abortion, which in no case should be promoted as a method of family planning, and in all cases provide for the humane treatment and counselling of women who have had recourse to abortion.

The document also says countries should aim to achieve an infant mortality rate below 35 per 1,000 live births. Governments must recognise the vital importance of family reunification for legal immigrants. Up to two-thirds of the costs of the overall programme will be met by developing countries, the rest from external sources.

A coalition of Egypt, Pakistan and Iran, which led the Muslim debate, helped hammer out the compromise. They said they put Islamic law first or criticised the concept of individual rights in sexual matters, arguing that Islam approved sex only between married couples.

Their position was seen as more accommodating than that of the Vatican which was accused by many of trying to sabotage the conference. But the Vatican eventually gave its blessing to the less controversial sections. ‘The Holy See wishes in some way to join the consensus even if in an incomplete or partial manner,’ the head of the Vatican delegation said.

Conference host Egypt made no formal reservation but said it would only apply what its constitution and religious beliefs allowed. Turkey was among Muslim secular states to accept the programme without reservation. Iran said it could not accept language that condoned extramarital sex or propagated the concept of ‘safe sex’.

Conference secretary-general Nafis Sadik of Pakistan called the gathering an outstanding success, saying that the agreed programme could change the world.