Despite a court ruling that prohibits the government from eliminating abortion benefits in its employe health program, the Office of Personnel Management has given the American Federation of Government Employees until 5 p.m. today to "voluntarily" drop abortion coverage from its 1982 health plan or be booted out of the program that covers 9 million people -- including about half of metro Washington.

AFGE, the only health plan still fighting to keep abortion benefits in its 1982 benefits package, won a court ruling last Thursday that seemed to ensure that federally funded abortions would continue next year unless Congress outlaws them. In September the OPM, citing antiabortion legislation in Congress and the $9 million cost of 17,000 abortions performed last year under the federal health program, told carriers they must drop abortion coverage if they want to remain in the program. All but AFGE agreed.

U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell said that OPM director Donald J. Devine exceeded his authority by cutting off abortion benefits pending congressional action on the question. The House has passed a continuing resolution (for the Treasury Department and Postal Service) with a rider sponsored by Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio) banning nonemergency abortions in the federal program. The Senate has not completed work on the continuing resolution.

In a hand-carried letter delivered Friday, the day after the judge's ruling, to union president Kenneth Blaylock, Devine -- a former University of Maryland professor and onetime aide to Ashbrook -- said he was "between a rock and a hard place" on the abortion issue.

Devine conceded that Judge Gesell's ruling enjoined him from unilaterally cutting off abortion benefits without consent of the union or in anticipation of what Congress might do. He said the resolution passed by the House (but not the Senate) takes precedence, and makes it illegal for OPM to okay or even talk about abortion benefits with carriers.

"Accordingly," Devine wrote, "I can see only two lawful alternatives: AFGE may voluntarily agree not to provide a theraputic abortion benefit in its 1982 plan; or OPM will be unable to incur administrative expenses with respect to the proposed AFGE plan, and must therefore decline to accept it."

AFGE's response to today's give-up-or-get-out deadline was bitter. Nicholas Nolan, secretary-treasurer of the big AFL-CIO union, said AFGE may take contempt of court action against Devine for "apparently ignoring an order of the court and attempting to take some extra-judicial way out of this thing."

Because of the Columbus Day holiday, Nolan said AFGE could not reach congressional experts to determine if Devine is correct in his assumption that the House passage of the Ashbrook language is sufficient grounds for OPM to refuse to accept or even discuss abortion coverage.

"By the same token," Nolan said, "we could argue that the Senate refusal so far to go along with the Ashbrook language (it was knocked out of the continuing resolution approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee) was a signal" Congress is not going to approve an abortion cutoff in the 1982 federal health program.

Nolan said the "hand-delivered" OPM letter arrived Friday after normal work hours and went to the union's mail room rather than directly to Blaylock or other union officials. AFGE officials discovered the letter Monday, he said, "about the same time" this column called for a reaction. He said AFGE is a "little ticked off" that the contents of what was supposed to be a personal "Dear Ken" letter to Blaylock was known to The Washington Post before the union president saw it.

Nolan said the union "isn't going to roll over" on this one. "We will see them in court, again," he said.