During the Democratic presidential primaries, all five of the contenders made a pilgrimage to Washington to assure Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, that they surely supported the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act by Congress. The law would provide statutory protection for Roe v. Wade no matter what the largely misogynist Supreme Court decided to do. Indeed, FOCA would go beyond Roe v. Wade to ensure the right to choose.

No bill was considered more urgent by pro-abortion rights groups, and the Democratic Party leadership heartily agreed. At the Democratic convention, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) proclaimed to resounding cheers: "This month, I'll bring before the ... Senate the Freedom of Choice Act. We'll debate on it. We'll vote on it. And we'll pass it." (The FOCA was a primary rallying cry throughout the convention, while nary a word was heard about, for instance, the increasing racial segregation in the public schools.)

July came and went, as did August, and the FOCA has yet to reach the floor of the Senate or the House, where Speaker Thomas Foley (D-Wash.) is just as fervently convinced that the nation cannot do without the Freedom of Choice Act.

The Democratic plan was to move the bill speedily through Congress and present it to the president and a certain veto before November. The veto would lose the president bushels of votes in this Year of the Pro-Choice Woman, and when Bill Clinton became president, FOCA would be reintroduced and triumphantly passed and signed.

What actually has happened to the Freedom of Choice Act is an illuminating lesson in the dynamics of thedemocratic process: separation of powers and the occasional ability of doubting citizens to make their legislators think again.

At the beginning, the writer of the bill, Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), could not have been more clear. "I want a clean bill," he told me. "It provides for no exceptions -- no exceptions whatever. It says a state may not restrict the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy -- for any reason."

Outlawed would be waiting periods and parental notification or consent before a teenager could have an abortion. At last the longest civil war in American history would be over. When eventually signed by a president Clinton, this federal law would preempt involvement by all the individual states in regulating abortions.

Its proponents intended to bring the act to the floor as soon as the Supreme Court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey. While few expected the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, nearly everyone expected it to so weaken Roe as to make it little more than a memory. But a majority of the court, while approving certain restrictions on abortions, continued to affirm Roe's "concept of liberty in defining the capacity of women to ... make ... reproductive decisions."

Some members of Congress, therefore, began to wonder if passing FOCA was still so urgent a matter. A sizable number of Democrats in the House also began to look at polls -- and at letters from their constituents -- indicating that there is a lot of public support, including among pro-choicers, for parental consent or at least notification as well as for waiting periods.

The Democratic leadership learned that amendments to FOCA of this sort would be offered. Accordingly, prospects were that Don Edwards's once clean bill would be festooned with exceptions.

Then Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), an advocate of abortion rights, proposed -- as an amendment to FOCA -- the Supreme Court's decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. A key provision of that ruling is that abortions can be regulated provided the regulations do not place an "undue burden" on the right to abort. This is not what Kate Michelman had in mind.

The prospect, therefore, of bringing the FOCA to the floor of either the House or Senate before next year is now viewed dimly by pro-abortion-rights organizations and legislators.

There are some dour pro-choicers who say that FOCA's apparent fall from grace indicates that NARAL and the National Organization for Women do not, after all, speak for a majority in Congress or in the country in insisting on an absolutely "clean" bill.

Abortion rights activists, however, await the redeeming advent of Bill Clinton. But Clinton -- Lyle Denniston of the Baltimore Sun reports -- wants "to handle the issue on its own rather than having a sweeping bill emerge from Congress." Since Clinton is a master of situational principles and has a decidedly mixed record on abortion, pro-choicers may have to live quite a while with the results of Planned Parenthood v. Casey even if Bush is gone.