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Vice President Al Gore on Monday appealed for the world to overcome differences over abortion and resolve the "spiritual challenge" behind curbing population growth.

Speaking at the U.N. population conference, Gore said the abortion controversy that has driven a wedge between the Clinton administration and the Vatican "will be extremely difficult ever to fully resolve."But he said larger shared principles should allow both sides to work for the betterment of a future world.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali on Monday called the conference "a turning point for the all-important population issue."

In his speech, Gore chided modern man for ignoring the consequences of today's actions on the future. "Can we find ways to work together, or will we insist on selfishly exploring the limits of human pride?" he asked. "Why is it so hard to recognize that we are all part of something larger than ourselves?"

While the population growth itself is dramatic, he said, it is "a symptom of a much larger and deeper spiritual challenge now facing humankind."

Boutros-Ghali, opening the conference, urged the delegates to "avoid being trapped in absurd and outmoded disputes over words."

And Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said the debate should "avoid dogmatism and fanaticism," noting the conference participants are people from "dif-fer-ent civilizations, cultures andheavenly messages whose laws should be respected."

Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland drew the most enthusiastic applause by sounding a major theme of the conference's draft plan of action - that giving women equality is the best way to slow population growth.

"The girl who receives her diploma will have fewer babies than her sister who does not," Brundt-land said in urging the conference to further women's education.

She also was applauded for urging delegates to be realistic about abortion and sex education, the issues that have raised loud objections to the draft report from the Vatican and Muslim fundamentalists.

"None of us, whatever our religion, can disregard that abortions occur. And where they are illegal or heavily restricted, the life of the woman is often endangered," she said.

Gore continued the Clinton administration's efforts to smooth over public discord with the Vatican and some Muslim nations while pressing to include abortion services in the population blueprint the conference will adopt.

Entering the conference hall on crutches because of an achilles tendon injury suffered while playing basketball, he made a point of walking over and chatting with two Vatican representatives before taking his seat.

The vice president said that while the Clinton administration supports a woman's right to an abortion, it does not advocate "a new international right to abortion" but believes it is up to each country to decide the issue.

The comment drew applause.

Gore said only a comprehensive strategy of improved child and maternal health, education and access to contraception will stem the world's growth rate, now at 90 million people a year.

"Our margin of error is shrinking," Gore said. "The rapid growth of population is combined with huge and unsustainable levels of consumption in the developed countries . . . and a willful refusal to take responsibility for the future consequences of the choices we make."

Also speaking on the opening day was Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, who had to buck conservative Islamic voices at home and abroad to attend. Several Muslim nations are boycotting the conference, saying it promotes immorality and seeks to impose Western values on Islamic cultures.

Bhutto appealed to the conference to avoid drafting a plan that would be viewed by some as "a universal social charter seeking to impose adultery, abortion, sex edu-ca-tion and other such matters on in-di-vid-ual societies and religions that have their own social ethos.

"The world needs consensus. It does not need a clash of cultures,' she said.

Pope John Paul II has led a vigorous campaign to steer the conference away from acceptance of abortion and artificial contraception. On Sunday, he said the conference was heading to a "dan-ger-ous shortcut" of reducing birth-rates by any means.

Yet Timothy Wirth, a U.S. undersecretary of state and Washington's top population official, predicted a "very promising" compromise would be worked out on the disputed sections of the conference's final document.

The conference aims to draw up a voluntary strategy to stem the world's population growth. Among the planks in the 113-page draft document are empowering women, improving child and maternal health, integrating development with population concerns and making contraceptives widely available.