The government, which last year financed 17,000 abortions through its employe health program, yesterday announced it will not allow any 1981 federal health plan to pay for abortions except when the life of the woman is at stake.

Officials of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) said cutbacks will also be made in dental and mental health benefits in the Federal Employes Health Benefits program. It covers 9 million civil servants, family members and retirees.

Locally the federal employe health program is the primary health insurer for about half the population. Last year it paid for about 3,400 abortions in the area.

OPM Director Donald J. Devine warned federal employe health program carriers that any who provide non-emergency abortion benefits will be dropped from the program. A non-emergency abortion is any abortion for any reason other than to save the woman's life. He said this and other cutbacks in the works are designed to head off premium increases next year that could hit 20 or 30 percent.

Devine, a former University of Maryland professor and long-time Reagan supporter, said the hard line is consistent with the mood of Congress and the administration, which "opposes the use of taxpayer funds to pay for abortions."

The House overwhelmingly approved a rider to the Treasury Department appropriation bill, by Rep. John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio), banning the federal health program from paying for non-emergency abortions. The Senate is considering the measure.

Devine said action had to be taken now because millions of brochures spelling out 1981 health plans must be printed next week.

Last year the federal health program paid out $9 million for abortions. Of the 120 plans in the program only three currently exclude abortions. Another 28 allow them only if the life of the woman is in danger. The others allow elective abortions. Blue Cross-Blue Shield and Aetna, the two largest carriers, pay "reasonable and customary charges."

Abortions in the Washington area currently average $250, according to one insurance carrier. Costs can be as high as $500 in cases where complications arise.

The government and its employes split the premium cost on a 60-40 basis. The cost to individuals for health insurance ranges from $400 to $800 per year depending on coverage.

OPM says that the government's cost of health insurance would go up $500 million next year unless benefits are cut. Other cuts will be announced soon in mental and dental coverage.

Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), who heads the House subcommittee that oversees the federal health program, said she is "shocked and disappointed" over the cuts.

She said the 9.2 million people who receive benefits from the federal health program next year may have to pay an additional $400 million for medical care.