The legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, the nation's largest anti-abortion group, has written a memo suggesting that Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has become unpopular among his peers and may no longer be able to champion the anti-abortion cause in the Senate effectively.

The memo does not directly recommend dumping Helms as the Senate's leading anti-abortion spokesman.

But John C. Willke, the group's president, said yesterday that by reading it someone "could take the inference that another sponsor might garner more votes."

The memo from Douglas Johnson, NRLC legislative director, was written in unusually frank language on Dec. 23, the same day that the lame-duck session of Congress adjourned. It has led to calls for his ouster by some anti-abortion activists, and he has written a lengthy letter of apology to Helms.

The memo said news accounts indicated that Helms "has never been among the more esteemed senators among his colleagues," and that his standing "has fallen to a new low, due in part to his participation in a filibuster against the gas-tax bill which delayed adjournment of the Senate."

Johnson said his own observations confirmed that "the level of animosity within the Senate toward Sen. Helms has in fact increased steadily during the 97th Congress, and is today at a very high level."

Johnson described the Senate as a small, closed club where friendships and personalities "often play an important role in determining legislative outcomes."

With the body split almost evenly on the abortion issue, Johnson said that "the popularity factor" could make the difference between passage or defeat of anti-abortion legislation.

"Pro-life leaders must weigh this factor, together with other important considerations, in developing legislative strategy for the 98th Congress," he said. He did not recommend a replacement for Helms.

A spokesman for Helms said the senator has no comment on the memo.

The memo was intended for internal use, but part of it was reprinted last week in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly newspaper based in St. Paul. Johnson wrote a three-page letter of apology to Helms the day the article appeared.

Helen DeWitt, an NRLC board member from Kansas, called for Johnson's dismissal, saying she "was disheartened to say the very least."

The memo resurfaced yesterday when Willke was questioned about Helms during an appearence at the National Press Club, marking the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, which struck down state laws banning abortion.

The subject clearly embarrassed Willke. He praised Helms--who last fall led an unsuccessful battle to enact an anti-abortion constitutional amendment--as an "acknowledged leader of our movement."

However, Willke said the goal of his organization "is to pass legislation," and to do that, "you have to look at who might carry the most votes."

"There are those in the movement who are using the memo to injure us and injure Mr. Helms," he added later in an interview.