The Office of Personnel Management yesterday notified insurance plans in the Federal Employes Health Benefits program that next year they cannot pay for abortions for federal workers or their dependents unless the operation is necessary to save the mother's life.

Director Donald J. Devine, an outspoken opponent of abortions, said OPM acted to comply with language in the stopgap funding bill Congress approved the evening of Oct. 1. The continuing resolution permits agencies to operate through Dec. 17, and contains a rider banning FEHB payment for non-emergency abortions starting Jan. 1, 1983.

OPM General Counsel Joseph Morris said that if the post-election session of Congress drops the FEHB abortion rider "we will of course abide by that decision" and carriers that planned to offer abortion benefits "may do so."

In 1980, the last year for which figures are available, government health plans paid an estimated $9 million for approximately 17,000 abortions, both therapeutic and elective.

This year OPM tried to force carriers to drop elective abortion coverage. Most did. But some carriers fought back. One union plan took OPM to court. It won a decision which said abortion payments could not be banned administratively.

Last month OPM signed agreements with eight union-backed health plans saying they could continue to offer abortions benefits next year. OPM approved the contracts.

But late yesterday OPM said subsequent congressional action had outlawed most federally financed abortions in 1983.

The action caught most interested parties off guard.

Joanne Howes, Planned Parenthood's legal representative, said the surprise language was put in the continuing resolution by the Senate subcommittee on Treasury Department appropriations, headed by Sen. James Abdnor (R-S.D.).

Howes says she hopes to convince Appropriations Committee Chairman Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), whom she believes was unaware of the anti-abortion rider, to have it removed when Congress returns.

The American Federation of Government Employees says its health plan director was called by OPM yesterday and told to "expunge" all references to abortion benefits from the brochure it will use to advertise 1983 benefits. OPM says it made similar calls to three other unions that planned to advertise 1983 abortion benefits, and four other plans that will offer the benefits but not advertise them. They are:

National Federation of Federal Employees; National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees; National Treasury Employees Union; American Postal Workers Union; National Association of Letter Carriers, Rural Letter Carriers; and Foreign Service Benefit Plan. Most federal workers are eligible to join most of the plans, although non-union members must pay a special fee.

Some Health Maintenance Organizations participating in the FEHB also offer abortion benefits that cannot be covered next year.

The continuing resolution expires Dec. 17. After that, Congress must pass a new resolution or approve specific agency budgets. In that process, it could eliminate the abortion language or extend it.

In any case, abortion benefits cannot be advertised during the Nov. 22-Dec. 10 open enrollment period.

Robert Honig, staff director of the Federal Government Service Task Force, said that even if abortion coverage is eventually approved it could come "too late" to help workers make a choice for next year's health insurance.