DONALD J. DEVINE, an antiabortion conservative out of Maryland who is currently head of the Office of Personnel Management, is carrying the crusade straight into the health insurance plans that cover more than 9 million federal employes, retirees and their families.

He has decided that the congressional will and the executive will, as he puts it, are against federally financed abortions and that Congress is about to support the Ashbrook amendment to the Treasury bill, which would ban the use of federal health insurance funds to pay for abortions except when the mother's life is in danger. While the House has approved the amendment, the Senate Appropriations Committee rejected it 14 to 7, leaving some question about what Congress is actually going to do.

Nevertheless, with the convenient reasoning that federal health-plan benefit brochures are being printed this week, Devine announced last week that health insurers who pay for abortions will be dropped from the federal plan. Saying he had the assurance of his OPM lawyers that "there was no legal problem with the action," Devine anticipated the will of Congress and placed a mass moral imprint on health plans that financed 17,000 abortions last year for federal employes and their dependents.

Devine, a former associate professor of government at the University of Maryland who was active in the Reagan-Bush campaign, has, according to his official OPM handout, "combined a distinguished academic career with active public service." He has been a consultant to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a member of Young Americans for Freedom's advisory board, a special assistant to Reps. John Ashbrook and Philip Crane, and a director of Life-PAC, which supports state campaigns of antiabortionists.

Devine says that he does not believe it is his "function to turn my private beliefs into public policy," but fortunately he works for an antiabortion administration and he is able to point to that for his mandate. Last winter, he announced that he was not only concerned about health plans covering abortion but also was concerned that Planned Parenthood -- the bete noire of the antiabortion organizations -- was a beneficiary of the Combined Federal Campaign. While Planned Parenthood survived the assault of antiabortionists this year, Devine issued a memo indicating it might have trouble meeting eligibility standards next year.

After he trained his sights on the abortion benefits, the American Federation of Government Employees unanimously voted at its convention last winter to fight him. Jane McMichael, legislative and political affairs director for the union, which represents some 750,000 GS 9s and below, said the union members saw it as a bread-and-butter issue, not a moral one.

"The question is whether or not your insurance policy will be all-encompassing or not and whether the federal government can unilaterally reduce insurance coverage, whether for abortions or any other benefit, when. . . there is a responsibility between the union and the insuring organization to come up with an agreed-upon plan."

AFGE has now taken Devine to U.S. District Court. Judge Gerhard Gesell refused to grant a temporary restraining order against Devine in mid-September, saying the issue was not ripe, but now that Devine has made a formal announcement of the policy change, the case is due back in court with a hearing set for Oct. 7.

AFGE is arguing that OPM does not have the right to change benefits unilaterally. Further, argues AFGE General Counsel Jim Rosa, "We're saying . . . OPM does not have the authority to regulate insurance in order to address its views on morality, and secondly, it doesn't have the authority . . . to change insurance benefits unless it can show it furthers the purpose of the statute setting up federal health benefits which is to attract good federal employes."

Cutting back abortion coverage clearly reduces compensation of federal employes and it clearly reduces the benefits of a single class of people: women. Devine is presenting this as part of an effort to hold down health insurance premium increases. But how much is it going to cost for federal health insurance programs to support babies born with Tay-Sachs disease, Down's syndrome, spina bifida -- all devastating illnesses that can be diagnosed through amniocentesis so a woman can abort if she chooses to?

The immediate impact of Devine's actions will be to work financial hardship on women who will have to find other means of financing abortions. Some will end up continuing unwanted pregnancies. Some older women, or women with histories of genetic problems, will have amniocentesis in the later months and find they are carrying a genetically deformed child and that they do not have the money to afford a complicated late-term abortion. This has already happened to military dependents.

Not only has Devine reduced benefits without negotiating these matters with those who are insured, but he, as well as like-minded people in Congress and the administration, is trampling on the rights of federal employes in order to further his personal beliefs about what ought to be a very private matter.