ANNAPOLIS, FEB. 6 -- As Maryland legislators prepare again to debate the emotional abortion issue, a curious transformation has taken place in the state Senate.

Conspicuously absent from the front ranks of abortion-rights advocates this year are women who helped push the issue to a pivotal point in the 1990 General Assembly. Women senators said it was largely out of political pragmatism that they ceded to their male counterparts control of what is often considered a women's issue.

"If you care about the issue, you get out of the firing line," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore).

Last year, Hoffman and Sen. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) sponsored an abortion-rights measure that was defeated after an eight-day filibuster, which included a rancorous face-off between women leaders of the abortion-rights movement and male leaders of the Senate's antiabortion bloc.

Karyn Strickler, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, added: "It's unfortunate, but it's still a man's world, and the General Assembly is very reflective of that."

Women made modest gains in last year's elections, when the Senate's 47 seats and all 141 seats in the House of Delegates were on the ballot. The Senate this year has nine women members, compared with eight in the last session, while the House has 35 women, the same number as last year.

Four of the woman senators are freshmen, and so are not in a position to wield the kind of legislative power that often takes years to accumulate. Among the four is Sen. Patricia R. Sher (D-Montgomery), an abortion-rights leader when she was in the House of Delegates.

Many women legislators said they are content to let men control the tempo of the abortion debate this time around.

"It got to be a macho, male-female thing last year, and we don't need that again," said Sen. Mary H. Boergers (D-Montgomery), president of the assembly's Women's Caucus.

The prime sponsors of the abortion-rights bills in the House are Dels. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg (D-Baltimore) and Lawrence A. LaMotte (D-Baltimore County).

In the Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) has put his own leadership on the line in pushing a measure that would have few restrictions on abortions but require that parents be notified in many cases when their minor daughters seek abortions.

Miller placed the bill in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount (D-Baltimore), Deputy Majority Leader John A. Pica Jr. (D-Baltimore) and Sen. Walter M. Baker (D-Cecil), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

"We're better off if it's a leadership issue," Hollinger said.

With debate scheduled to begin Thursday in the Senate, some lawmakers question whether it is unusual that men should take the lead on the abortion issue. They point out that abortion became viewed as a largely feminist issue only when threats to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision arose in the 1980s.

"I'm not troubled at all by the fact there are not more women on the front line this year," said Pat Riviere, a lobbyist for the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women.

"There's a delicate balance," Riviere said. "Abortion is a women's issue because women are most affected. But we're not talking about someone's ego or political power here. Who sponsors the bill is secondary."

Miller said that in some measure, the decision to have men take the lead was made to avoid what the Senate president described as "anti-feminism, racism and antisemitism" that smoldered beneath the surface during last year's acrimonious Senate debate.

"We became a lightning rod simply because we were Jewish women," Hoffman said this week. "As far as not being in the forefront this year, I'm glad."

Pat Kelly, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, which opposes abortion, said the fact that women have moved into the background on the abortion-rights side will not change the strategy of antiabortion lawmakers, led by Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel) and Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's).

"I wonder if part of the reason is to try to keep down the emotions," Kelly said. "I think there were some pitfalls last year they are trying to avoid this year."

Riviere and other abortion-rights advocates said they worry, however, that men will be more willing to compromise on the issue. As evidence, they cite Miller's insistence that parental notification be a key element in the procedure.

Yet, even opponents of notification see some benefit in the current lineup of leaders.

If you get the best leaders, women's lives are going to be positively affected," Strickler contended. "You have to weigh it on the larger scale."