Brazil's government slowly and cautiously is changing some of its attitudes toward family planning, a once-taboo subject.

Officials here have not gone so far as to promote a government birth dropped former nationalistic talk about Roman Catholic Brazil's need to produce more people to fill up the Amazon jungle and other sparsely populated areas.

Brazil's aspires to become a prosperous, developed, major world nation by the 21st century, but many experts believe that a large population of poor and unproductive people could block this goal. Studies have shown that Brazilian families now having the most children are those with the lowest incomes and educational levels.

Official line on family planning remains the one Brazil announced at the 1974 United Nations-sponsored conference on population in Bucharest, Romania - it is entirely up to individual Brazilian couples to decide how many children they want and the government must not interfere.

Brazilian policymakers, however, appear to be assuming more flexible positions. "We do not foresee any official policy of family planning, but the government is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of giving poorer sectors of our population access to information - and methods - for determining how many offspring they will have," said Joao Paulo dos Reis Velloso, the Cabinet minister who heads Brazil's Presidential Planning Office.

Brazil has a population of more than 110 million and the annual growth rate is 2.8 per cent - more than three times higher than in the United States.

At this rate, it will have 220 million people by the year 2000 and 917 million by 2050. With a drop between now and the end of the century to zero population growth - with each couple having just two children - the population would be 180 million in 2000 and an infinitely more managable 260 million in 2050.

For the first time, the government is talking publicly about providing birth control pills directly to its citizens. Health Minister Paulo de Almeida Machado stresses that this would be done only where women, because of ignorance, may be ruining their bodies by having one pregnancy after another.

"The idea would be to protect the health of such mothers and, consequently, the biological quality of their children," he explained.

"We are not going to tell a mother, 'Do not have any more babies.' But we will say, 'Take it easy. Rest a year before having another child. Take care of your body'", Almeida Machado said.

If birth control pills were necessary to accomplish this, the government would make them available, he said, adding: "A woman cannot be regarded simply as a child-producing machine."

This is a major concession in official thinking in Brazil, but he has made it clear that "we are not trying to reduce the number of births, nor are we going to go around distributing pills everywhere. No way."

For the past 12 years, the government has allowed a private family planning organization known by the acronym BEMFAM to provide birth control information and pills discreetly, to people who want them. BEMFAM, which is affiliated with the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation, operates on a low key basis in several Brazilian states, mostly in the poor northwest region.

Local medical groups have attacked BEMFAM as being an agent of "imperialist forces" allegedly trying to keep Brazil from becoming a great country by limiting its population.

Even Alemeida Machado said he has "reservations" about the fact that BEMFAM gets money from abroad. But he notes that as long as it does not break any laws, "there's nothing preventing it from operating in Brazil."

The Roman Catholic church - Brazil is the world's most populous Catholic country - is openly opposed to BEMFAM's work. Some Catholic clergymen are becoming wary about changing attitudes of family planning within the government itself.

"There's talk that the government may support family planning," says Eugenio Cardinal Sales, Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro. "But it must be remembered that demographic growth is not the principal cause of under-development. Putting the blame for hunger on those who are hungry is a convenient explanation."

Cardinal Sales believes the government should forget about family planning and concentrate on improving the nation's economy and overall living standards.