The rate of population growth is slowing worldwide, the U.N. Population Fund reported today, prompting a sharp cut in U.N. predictions for the Earth's population over the next 50 years.

In a special report to mark the global population's reaching 6 billion--with the world's 6 billionth inhabitant likely to be born on about Oct. 12, the U.N. predicts--the fund said world population will most likely approach 8.9 billion by 2050. That is 500 million fewer people than the organization had predicted at the world population conference in Cairo in 1994.

Fund Executive Director Nafis Sadik said, "Women are having fewer children than ever before, and population growth has slowed." She said there will be no "birth dearth" for a while, however, because there are so many women of child-bearing age.

Sadik said China, the world's most populous country, has been most successful at cutting population growth. She cited data showing global population would have reached 6 billion three years earlier without China's tough family-planning laws. But she criticized China's one-child-per-family rule because it restricts parental choice.

The 20th century has experienced the fastest population growth in history, with the number of people quadrupling since 1900. The total hit 5 billion in 1987.