With both sides charging that they face "irreparable injury," A.H. Robins stockholders and a special group of Dalkon Shield claimants are engaged in a battle that has brought new bitterness to the company's two-year-old bankruptcy case.

The battle lines formed 2 1/2 months ago when a federal judge signed an order to create a $15 million emergency fund to help women injured by the Dalkon Shield intrauterine birth-control device -- women whose chances of ever bearing a children were fading as the bankruptcy case dragged on.

The fund, ordered by U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr., would finance surgery, in vitro fertilization or both for women who claim the shield made them infertile and whose childbearing years are nearing an end.

"A true emergency" exists for the unknown number of infertile women who are nearing 40, Merhige said. "Any further lapse of time could permanently deprive them of an opportunity to bear children."

Merhige's order had near-unanimous support from the parties involved in the case. Robins, after initially resisting, joined in the motion to establish the fund.

But one party objected. The Committee of Equity Security Holders -- which represents nonfamily investors, who hold 58 percent of Robins stock -- claimed that Merhige's action would cause the investors "irreparable injury," and obtained a stay from the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocking the fund at least until early October, when the court will hear arguments on its merits.

Robert M. Miller, attorney for the committee of outside stockholders, defined that injury as the possible permanent loss of money paid to women whose claims might later be found to be invalid.

Merhige, in ruling against Miller, said in a memo that claimants approaching their 40th birthdays "will be irreparably harmed because such an advanced age substantially reduces their opportunity for reconstructive surgery or in vitro fertilization."

Miller's move to block the fund brought strong protests from other participants in the case.

Murray Drabkin, counsel to the Dalkon Shield Claimants Committee, told a reporter that Miller's action "in tying up the emergency fund is one of the cruelest acts in the long and ugly history of the Dalkon Shield."

In Bethlehem, Pa., Karen Hicks, who heads Dalkon Shield Information Network Inc., a claimants' group, said: "The stay inflicts new, gaping wounds. ... We are all grieving anew."

At a hearing on Miller's request for a stay, Assistant U.S. Attorney S. David Schiller recalled the "disgusting raid" in which, without the judge's knowledge, about $3 million was taken from the bankrupt company for bonuses for present and past officers and directors.

While Merhige had compelled Robins to retrieve the $3 million, Schiller pointed out, about $12 million in improper or unauthorized payments of other kinds has not been recovered a year after the judge held the company in contempt.

Ralph R. Mabey, the court-appointed examiner in the bankruptcy, attacked Miller's claim that stockholders would suffer irreparable harm. "To say that the stock market is going to trade Mr. Miller's clients' stock at a {lesser} amount because these payments were made just simply does not wash. ...The stock market isn't going to recognize that."

He told the hearing that many of the Robins stockholders "must be speculators."

The biggest block of shares outside the Robins family -- 7.76 percent of the 24.17 million shares outstanding -- is owned by hedge funds run by Wall Street wizard Michael H. Steinhardt.

Steinhardt, 46, is managing partner of Steinhardt & Partners, which has about $1 billion in private and institutional assets. Forbes magazine said last January that he is "noted for his rapid-fire trading."

Between Feb. 5 and April 1, his hedge funds -- Steinhardt Partners, Institutional Partners and SP International Investors NV -- spent $27.1 million for 1.3 million shares of Robins. The price per share ranged from $15.14 to $23.25, or roughly two to three times the post-bankruptcy low of $7.50.

On June 29, the funds increased their stake in Robins to 6.7 percent, and on July 13 to 7.76 percent, or 1.87 million shares worth $51.5 million. The price per share had increased to $27.50.

Miller said Steinhardt had no connection with the stay request. Steinhardt, in a brief telephone conversation, declined to discuss the matter in detail. "I think you are barking up the wrong tree" in approaching it in a "humanistic way," he said.

The fight to get the emergency fund for women who faced the prospect of not bearing children because of injuries related to the Dalkon Shield was begun by Drabkin soon after Robins, faced with a deluge of lawsuits, filed for Chapter 11 protection in August 1985.

Robins started selling the contraceptive device in 1971, which was used by an estimated 2.2 million women in the United States and elsewhere by April 1975. The company stopped selling the device after questions arose about its effectiveness and safety.

Drabkin said many of the shield claimants were nearing 40 and could not afford special medical treatment. In most cases, their health insurance didn't cover such treatment.

"I made repeated requests of Robins to cooperate in setting up a fund," Drabkin recalled in an interview. "And I remember {that} at one point, Robins' counsel agreed to it, and without explanation drew back. They took a hard line in opposition to it."

Later, he said, he appealed to Robins "as a matter of human decency to people for whom the bell is tolling."

After Merhige appointed Mabey and gave him special powers, the examiner also pressed the company behind the scenes, to no avail.

Robins filed a reorganization plan last April, but it drew criticism, partly because of provisions for paying as little as $100 to Dalkon Shield claimants.

On May 1, however, Robins announced that it had agreed to "significantly change" such provisions.

A few days later, the company agreed to join Mabey, Drabkin, and Stanley K. Joynes III, counsel to the committee representing the interests of future shield claimants, in asking Merhige to approve the $15 million emergency fund. The program "makes sense, both economically and from a point of view of humaneness," Robins said.

Mabey, the court-appointed examiner, told a hearing that with proper screening, reconstructive surgery restores fertility in 30 percent to 60 percent of cases, and in vitro fertilization may be effective in certain cases in which the surgery is unlikely to succeed.

Merhige's May ruling had set a $15,000 cap for each of the 1,000 potential claimants estimated to be eligible for the $15 million fund, and emphasized that each payment would be made only after a claim had been rigidly screened.

In addition, he directed that each payment be deducted from the much larger amount the woman presumably will receive after a financial reorganization plan is ultimately approved and payouts start to flow to the creditors, most of whom are Dalkon Shield claimants.

Merhige directed the Bankruptcy Court clerk to send out notices of the program to the 180,500 people who had filed timely notices of a claim and who had responded to an official questionnaire.

Also, an 800-number "help line" was set up to answer inquiries and to send out information packets to women who could be eligible for payments. In four days, the phone service logged 401 calls, including 259 from women who requested an information packet.

The day after the mailings began, Miller asked Merhige for the stay, which set off the court struggle.

In hearings and papers, Miller contended that Merhige "erred" in authorizing the payments, which, "however well-intentioned" would be "in direct contravention" of the Bankruptcy Code.

The fund would create an "unfair discrimination" that favors one category of Dalkon Shield claimants over others, Miller said in a phone interview from his New York law firm, Berlack, Israels & Liberman.

"What we're testing here is whether our view of the law permits that," he said. "We're simply saying that the Bankruptcy Code requires that all unsecured creditors be paid together pursuant to a plan of reorganization. And the emergency-fund order prefers one group.

"We're not trying to deny anybody justice," Miller said.