Peter D'Ascoli finished his obstetrics and gynecology training seven years ago in Buck Williams's hometown of Sioux Falls, but during the years of his residency -- years that are supposed to provide new doctors with hands-on hospital experience -- nobody suggested that as part of his education he should learn to perform abortions. It was not part of the curriculum at the University of South Dakota. If D'Ascoli wanted to learn abortion techniques, it was up to him to set up his training.

So he did: D'Ascoli used his vacation days to visit Williams's office and learn.

"I provided the abortion lectures in residency," D'Ascoli says. "Abortion was not a legitimate or acknowledged part of the training in South Dakota."

D'Ascoli now co-directs the obstetrics and gynecology residency at Minnesota's St. Paul-Ramsey Medical Center, and as part of his program, unless individual doctors have strong objections to participating, all residents are expected to learn how to do abortions in the hospital's own clinic.

The University of Iowa has similar expectations of its ob/gyn residents; Iowa's gynecology chief Charles A. deProsse says he thinks any residency without an abortion training component is neglecting an essential part of what a gynecologist needs to know. "This is a legitimate service," says deProsse. "And it should be treated as such."

DeProsse, who is 64 and has publicly argued for readily available abortion since the years when it was still illegal, is known in the Midwest as a particularly strong advocate for the training of young doctors in abortion methods. But his program is in the minority in its assumption that abortion should be taught as routinely as any other gynecological procedure: According to a 1987 survey published in the magazine Family Planning Perspectives, fewer than a quarter of the nation's 282 ob/gyn residencies include abortion training as a routine part of the curriculum. About half the residencies offer abortion teaching as an option for those doctors who wish to pursue it, the study found, and 28 percent --

including such Catholic facilities as Georgetown University -- provide no training in abortion at all.

"It's not a part of our curriculum," says Georgetown University Hospital spokesman Sharon Barczy. "It is their responsibility to make arrangements if they want the experience."

Nobody argues that abortion technique, particularly for the early suction procedures that make up most of the abortions performed in this country, is particularly difficult to learn. Later abortions are more complicated, since most of them are done by "dilation and evacuation" -- the clinical term for a procedure that requires dismembering the fetus and pulling the fetal parts through the dilated uterus. But an early suction abortion is handled much like the miscarriages or diagnostic uterine emptying that any ob/gyn resident learns to manage, and John Willke, the physician who heads the National Right to Life Committee, says that kind of general experience is all any hospital needs to offer even to the minority of doctors who intend to include elective abortions in their practice.

"The only thing that would have any validity at all would be the dilation and evacuation," Willke says. "If somebody wants to learn how to do those, they could attach themselves, apprentice-like, to an abortionist, and begin to learn how. I do not think it is the role of a teaching hospital to teach any resident how to do such a destructive procedure on human life."

Amy Cousins, a New York gynecologist who disagrees with Willke on just about everything having to do with abortion, says she thinks he is wrong about this, too. Even first-trimester abortions are physically and psychologically different enough from routine diagnostic procedures, Cousins says, that doctors needs special training like the kind she received during her residency six years ago at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York.

"It was just considered a routine thing you did -- you learned how to do a colposcopy {a special cervical examination}, a hysterectomy and an abortion," she says. "What is the point, and what are the ethics, of intentionally limiting medical education?"

The point in this case, of course, is that the most common gynecological operation in the country is not viewed like other medical procedures. That is a source of some satisfaction to Willke, who believes abortion is the killing of babies and defies any doctor's commitment to restore human health. And it frustrates Charles deProsse, who believes any doctor training to work with women must learn what to do with a woman who wants an abortion.

The debate is not limited to gynecologists, either; family practitioners perform some abortions, too, particularly in states with limited access to clinics, but very few family practice residencies appear to expect their young doctors to obtain experience in abortion or the counseling of patients seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

Jane Murray, director of education for the American Academy of Family Physicians, says the academy has no plans to include abortion in its assortment of continuing education programs, either.

"I think it would be many years before we would openly say the American Academy of Family Physicians is teaching doctors how to do abortion," she says. "We have a very broad membership, and you know as well as I do that that particular procedure is extremely politicized."

Even physicians like Charles deProsse say there are limits to the influence their teaching can have on young doctors facing the uncertainty of establishing a new practice. "We've had residents who have gone through our program who have been trained, are very much pro-choice, and have gone into a community where they just dare not perform abortions," deProsse says.

Economic realities like the high cost of malpractice insurance send many of them into established practices, too, where the senior partners have already made the decision for them: no pickets, no controversy, no abortions.

"I would say the majority of people being trained right now that I know of, people from my medical school and such, don't know how to do the procedure," says Teresa Berg, now a fourth-year obstetrics and gynecology resident at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Berg says she probably believes more strongly than any of her fellow residents that abortion must be kept legal and available to women who want it. But she is from South Dakota and went to the state university's medical school; every school day, she says, she and her classmates walked within earshot of the ruckus outside Buck Williams's office door.

"We parked a block from the picketers," Berg says. "Is that what you want your practice to be like? Do you want to have to run the sprinkler at certain times so your patients can get into the office? Do you want to be boycotted by certain religious groups?"

And when Teresa Berg considered her opportunities to learn abortion technique, at an Omaha clinic off campus, she thought about it, she says, but not very hard. She said no.