Bush is so afraid of the right, he's proposed repeal of a bill that he wrote. Few people more eagerly anticipated inauguration day two years ago than a small band of moderate and liberal Republicans concerned about global population growth. They confidently expected that this was one issue on which President Bush would decisively part company with his predecessor.

They had reason to be hopeful. In the 1960s and '70s, Bush had not only embraced the cause of domestic and international family planning, he had aggressively sought to be its champion. He was well aware of the political risk he ran in doing so. As he was later to point out, the issue may have cost his father a tight Senate race in heavily Catholic Connecticut in 1950.

As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bush shepherded the first major breakthrough in domestic family planning legislation in 1967, earmarking maternal and child health funds for family planning. He later co-authored the legislation commonly known as Title X, which created the first federal family planning program. He criticized the "timidity" of hospitals and welfare agencies and sought ways of convincing them that the public "desperately needs these agencies' aid" in supporting family planning.

On the international front, he campaigned for the chairmanship of a Republican Task Force on Population and Earth Resources, which eventually recommended that the United States support the United Nations population fund by an amount equal to at least 5 percent of the AID budget (about $700 million today). He urged, in the strongest words, that the United States and European countries make modern contraceptives available "on a massive scale" to all those who want them. In his defining maiden speech as U.S. representative to the U.N., Ambassador Bush named population and environment as top priorities.

One cannot read the record of those years without being convinced that George Bush believed genuinely and fervently in the importance of family planning and population control for the United States and the world. He acted on that conviction without any hope of political reward, and he was modestly ahead of his time in sensing, if not seeing, the connections between very rapid population growth and environmental degradation.

This is what makes the record of the present administration so sad. Emerging evidence of global environmental stress makes the case for concern more compelling than ever. Yet the president has executed a slow-motion, apparently permanent, flip-flop on one of the relatively few controversial positions he has taken in his career that clearly rose above political calculation.

The post-Reagan Bush has proposed repealing the Title X program he authored. He vetoed the AID budget over an amendment requiring that $15 million of it -- a far cry from $700 million -- go to the U.N. population fund, endorsing the canard that U.S. money would otherwise be used to support forced population programs in China. And he has continued the so-called "Mexico City policy," which dates back to 1984, prohibiting any U.S. support for foreign organizations that directly or indirectly provide abortion services, even counseling or referral. This means that no U.S. funds can go to the major providers of international family planning services.

The president asserts that he strongly supports family planning programs -- just not those connected even indirectly to abortion, including in those countries (like the United States) where abortion is legal. In other words, not most of them. To friends from his congressional and U.N. days who have privately raised the global growth issue with him, the president says that he will not rile the right wing over the issue. This leaves Secretary of State James Baker in charge of policy on this matter.

Baker's views emerged in testimony early this year. Sen. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), a congressional leader on population growth and its links to the environment, put the question this way: "If we are looking at a globe of 14 billion people at the end of the 21st century, you certainly would not suggest that, if there is something we can do about it ... we ought to just let that happen?" While taking credit for the Mexico City policy (it was "hammered out around the table in my office"), Baker pleaded ignorance: "I am going to be reluctant to give a yes or no on that. I frankly haven't studied {it}." Perhaps the 14-billion-person figure is wrong, he added, or perhaps 14 billion people would not create the chaos that Wirth foresaw.

Long-term demographic projections are packed with uncertainty. The best available evidence, which is all one can work with, says that if the current slow decline in fertility persists, the human population will level off at nearly triple today's 5.3 billion. Present understanding of environmental trends, technological change and economic prospects in the developing world suggests that such population growth will exact a tragic toll in environmental decline and human suffering. Above all, time is precious. A young woman today who bears three children instead of the six her mother may have borne will have 27 great-grandchildren instead of 216.

Modern contraceptives are by no means an automatic guarantee of slowed population growth. As President Bush once urgently argued, however, they are a necessary precondition. Today only 30 percent of couples in the developing world outside China who want to use modern contraceptives have access to them.

The writer is vice president of the World Resources Institute.