WHILE COMMUNISM is being dismantled in Poland, a controversy is brewing over the kind of democracy that is emerging there. A coalition including the Catholic Church, Solidarity and "Polish patriot" groups are moving swiftly to reverse certain key social-welfare policies inherited from the Communist Party.

Little publicity is being given to these domestic policy reversals. The last ones to know appear to be the women who will bear the brunt of the changes.

Since last spring, the government has made it harder to get divorces, greatly restricted access to abortion, curbed job-retention rights under parental-leave policies, cut funding for teenage counseling centers, reduced subsidies for workplace child-care centers and announced that religious teaching would resume in the public schools this month. The rationale for the changes is that they are needed to eliminate all vestiges of Stalinism.

"Now that the Communist Party has disappeared, we must abolish laws that were socially and politically negative," says Cracow Mayor Jacek Wozniakowski, formerly a writer for the nationally circulated Catholic paper, Tygodnik Powszechny. "In the time of communism, abortion was so easily performed on the whim of anyone. We have to make people realize that this is not just like cutting your nails."

There are already factory-floor jokes about inordinate influence being exercised by the church, says a young garment-factory cutter from Lodz, Malgorzata Mlodzian: "In the past, what kind of job you got depended on the {Communist Party} First Secretary. Now it depends on what the priest says about you." Mlodzian, a single mother whose monthly wage of $64 goes mostly for rent, energy and child care, said the intrusion of government into her private life "was the very reason for which we have been criticizing the Communist Party for all these years."

"Solidarity got such a power because it was attached to the church -- so now it's silenced by the church on this issue," she says. Poland's abortion controversy illustrates the power vacuum left in the wake of communism. The only groups that began this new venture into democracy with a grass-roots base -- the Catholic Church and the Solidarity union -- are now struggling to maintain their stature as competing groups proliferate.

"There has been a strong swing to the right this summer," says Eastern European specialist and anthropologist Janine Wedel. "The church is threatened because it has always been the sole political force and it isn't so any longer. It's stepping up its activity."

Under the Communist Party's 1956 abortion law, abortions have been legal in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy in cases of a threat to the woman's health, fetal deformities, rape or "difficult living conditions." The last have included acute housing shortages (80 percent of married couples live with in-laws for an average of 10 years before finding a flat of their own); a husband disabled by alcoholism (an estimated 1.5 million women are married to alcoholics) and unwanted pregnancies due to defective or inaccessible contraceptives.

According to official figures, there have been up to 500,000 abortions a year in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland, although the unofficial estimate is twice that.

In mid-May, with minimal public notice, the Ministry of Health issued new rules restricting access to legal abortions and inviting doctors to stop doing them entirely. The rules require a woman to get permission for an abortion from two and sometimes three physicians. Any of them can refuse to sign off on an abortion if they disagree with the woman's reasons for wanting one.

She also must see a psychologist from a list prepared by the state, with input from the church, who will try to talk her out of the abortion. The national training session for the state-approved psychologists in late July included an attack on Planned Parenthood and its Polish affiliate; government funds for the teenage counseling centers were ended at the urging of anti-abortion activists early this year.

Doctors -- not women -- have the final say, according to a gynecologist who has seen the process in action at a Warsaw hospital. That leaves women with the choice of continuing with an unwanted pregnancy or finding a doctor willing to thwart the new rules: a private-practice gynecologist who could have his license revoked or a medical moonlighter (90 percent of all doctors work for the government) who performs abortions in a home office. The regulations called for an appeals mechanism, but it had not been put in place by late summer.

The new regulation also gave doctors the right to opt out of abortions entirely, with press spokesman Antoni Bielewicz predicting that 75 percent ultimately would do so. By August, the major teaching hospital in Cracow, two smaller hospitals and many individual doctors had done just that.

Asked if all physicians agreed with the new political push to ban abortion, Solidarity activist Piotr Krasuscki said in what he meant to be a wisecrack: "The only people supporting the 1956 law are Jews and communists."

According to Bielewicz, if a woman can't locate a doctor willing to perform an abortion, she could go abroad "or give birth to a baby. I don't regard that as a big unhappiness, to give birth to a baby you don't want. There are bigger events in the world -- like the fact there is no food in the hospitals for the patients." The architects of the new social policies speak of the need to change attitudes and habits developed under communism.

Sen. Walerian Piotrowski, sponsor of a proposal due for a Senate vote in late September which would ban not only abortion but most contraceptives, says Poland may lag economically behind Europe but will teach it a "morality lesson" by giving full legal rights to fetuses and declaring that life begins at conception.

Dr. Michal Troszynski, who heads the Polish gynecological association and helped shape the Ministry of Health regulations curbing abortion access, blamed women for "a lack of thinking. They are thinking after they are pregnant . . . ."

Obtaining a divorce is also becoming harder. Sen. Edmund Wende, a sponsor of the law that transfers jurisdiction over divorce cases from 290 local courts to 44 regional courts, said it isn't "in society's interest to make access to divorce trials too easy." Wende estimated that there were 100,000 divorces each year in Poland, calling that "a threatening number." "We want to make getting a divorce more difficult," said Wende. "The higher courts will add a gravity to this issue." The divorce law takes effect in January.

Few women, or men, knew that the abortion curbs were in effect, that a law toughening divorce had been passed or that another one to ban abortions and most contraceptives was pending.

Of some 60 women and men interviewed late this summer in Warsaw, Lodz and Poznan factories or offices or on trains between those cities, only one knew about any of those actions. She was a Poznan physician working hard to outlaw abortion.

Asked if they wanted abortion kept legal, 55 of the 60 were adamant that it should remain so, especially with sex education nonexistent and with contraceptives hard to get and often faulty.

Women are hit hard by the recession, both from higher prices and from the prospect Women are shocked they have been left out while such major changes affecting their daily lives are made.

that millions may lose their jobs because they dominate the obsolete, cheap-wage factories due for closure. They balance their concerns with the rewards they already have: free speech and the disappearance of long lines at stores. But they are shocked they have been left out while such major changes affecting their daily lives are made.

"Is this what is left over after communism?" asks Elzbieta Kostosynska, a Solidarity activist from the city of Piotrkow Trybunalski, who vehemently disagreed with an anti-abortion resolution approved at the union's April convention where women were 10 percent of the delegates.

"Is it going to turn out that just because {Solidarity leader Lech} Walesa has eight children that we should also?"

"This would be the new totalitarianism -- men controlling women's decisions on this," says Halina Olczak of Lublin, one of two female regional Solidarity union leaders out of a total of 26. She was a delegate to the April Solidarity convention, where a resolution was brought up without notice to commemorate the martyred priest Father Jerzy Popieluszko -- and his belief that life begins at conception. That put the union on record as supporting escalating efforts to ban abortions entirely.

A year earlier, a proposal to ban abortions and jail women and physicians caused a furor only weeks before the first postwar semi-free elections here. In fact, that plan originated with communists who were courting the church, but it was quickly backed by some factions of Solidarity.

In reaction, a grass-roots women's movement began, with protests in half a dozen cities. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa defused the issue by saying he personally opposed abortion but did not think government should be involved in prohibiting it. The proposal was defeated.

The behind-the-scenes "Popieluszko" maneuvering at the union convention last April essentially reversed Walesa's hands-off stance, with his blessing. "We were screwed," says Barbara Pomarska of the Polish Feminist Association, which is challenged the constitutionality of the new abortion restrictions.

The union's abortion vote led Halina Olczak and Anastasia Konieczna, who heads the union local at a 400-person shipyard, to take key roles in a newly formed Women's Section of Solidarity. They testified in early June before a closed-door Senate hearing on abortion, urging consultation with women before going forward with anti-abortion proposals.

They never heard another word. After reading that the committee had approved the abortion ban and sent it to the Senate, the Solidarity women sent a telegram urging a delay until after the upcoming parliamentary elections. Failure to consult women, they warned, would be "harmful for our fragile democracy." There is much grass-roots ferment about political power in the new Poland, with most of the focus on what role Walesa will play in the future government. The new parties do not easily break down by liberal-conservative labels. Two new "Poles for Poland" political fundamentalist parties to the right of Walesa are aligned with him. The newest political party, ROAD, is seen as left of center, headed by a former Walesa ally turned opponent, publisher Adam Michnik -- but ROAD's cofounders include the author of the new law restricting divorce.

The political fundamentalists are campaigning for banning abortion, linking the 1956 abortion law with Stalinism. Some leaders are saying openly that women should go home now and procreate. Except for members of the old Communist Party, now calling themselves Social Democrats, no politician defends the abortion law -- certainly not Michnik or ROAD, who want to avoid a showdown with the church, which has not yet publicly endorsed Walesa for president.

The collapse of communism has exposed great cultural and social schisms in Polish society: the sociologists rarely talk to the Solidarity factory-floor women; the fledgling feminists are leary about linking up with women who have broad international contacts because many had Communist Party ties. And, even if urgent economic problems were not making daily survival issues paramount, there would not necessarily be many women eager to work collectively to defend their common interests: To them, that sounds too much like communism.

Under communism, the presence of the old party-created Women's League precluded any indigenous grass roots groups from emerging -- let alone any connected with Western-style feminism, which might have introduced the 1960s-1970s "consciousness-raising" about women's "place" -- and which might have led to a sharing of domestic duties with men, as it did in the West. Seventy-five percent of women work full-time and nearly all of them put in an additional 5-6 hours work each day shopping, cooking and cleaning in a society bereft of the most commonplace labor-saving devices. Most Polish women don't know there is even minimal burden-sharing with men elsewhere. In the highly politicized months that lie ahead, abortion may be one of the central showdown issues. The Catholic Church has put lots of chips on persuading parliament to revoke the 1956 abortion law. Its newly gained access to Polish television is being used partly to push its "life begins at conception" premise.

Pope John Paul II will visit his homeland next summer and one event will include consecration of a rehabilitation hospital for the handicapped being built by the the newly-created Popieluszko Pro-Life Foundation.

"I think making abortion illegal would be the nicest gift to this pope," says Teresa Olearczyk, who heads a family counseling center in Cracow which the pope founded 25 years ago. She said that since May, and the forced visit by pregnant women to state-approved psychologists, many women have decided not to go forward with abortions. "A woman is never sorry to have had a child," she said.

But Sen. Andrzej Wielowieyski, deputy marshal of the Senate and a leader of the Catholic Intelligentsia Clubs in the 1960s and 1970s, sees the anti-abortion drive in another light. Wielowieyski opposes abortion and supports regulations restricting it, but he is against outlawing contraceptives and abortions, or jailing doctors or women.

"This would be replacing one form of totalitarianism with another," said Wielowieyski.

Peggy Simpson covered Washington politics for 22 years. Now a journalist-in-residence at the Indiana School of Journalism, she recently returned from three months in Eastern Europe.