One year ago today the Supreme Court transformed the abortion issue from a constitutional debate into a political struggle that has made life miserable for politicians of both parties and shows no sign of immediate resolution.

In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the court gave states a green light to adopt restrictions on abortion, stepping back from its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that declared abortion a fundamental constitutional right.

Roughly 40 states responded, as legislators considered more than 300 bills nationwide. But by last week, only Pennsylvania, South Carolina, West Virginia and Guam had new restrictions signed into law.

The relative paucity of legislative victories for the antiabortion movement is just one indication of how the political climate has changed since the Webster decision.

Leaders of the abortion-rights movement responded faster and more skillfully after the Webster decision to reframe the debate around the slogan of "Who Decides," which shifted the emphasis away from abortion itself toward the question of government involvement in a woman's private life. That tactic threw antiabortion forces off balance for much of 1989. Thousands of abortion-rights supporters, many not previously involved in the political process, mobilized to fight against new restrictions.

"Webster created a tremendous upsurge in activity in the political process in this nation," said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). "The court sparked a political mobilization" among abortion-rights supporters.

But the intervening year's tally of legislative and electoral victories and defeats masks the continued intensity and dedication of antiabortion activists, who view the past year not as a disappointment but as a warmup for increased legislative activity in 1991.

John C. Willke, president of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) said that the past year has produced "a tremendous invigoration of the pro-life movement, rapid growth at all levels, optimism and buoyancy. . . . There's an apparent media-fostered impression out there that they're {abortion-rights forces} winning and that we aren't."

Acknowledging that abortion opponents were caught off balance in the first months after the Webster ruling, Willke added that "if there was a turning psychologically it was the January marches" held by antiabortion activists around the country.

"It was pent-up anger by people who said, 'This is not where we're at, and dang it, let's go out and show them,' " he said.

The political upheaval came about despite only a modest shift in public opinion toward support for abortion rights. Harrison Hickman, a Democratic pollster who advises NARAL, cited two of his polls, one from December 1987 and the other from September 1989. Respondents favoring abortion rights went from 50 percent of those surveyed in 1987 to 57 percent in 1989, while abortion opponents stayed level, going from 37 percent in 1987 to 36 percent in 1989.

Polling also shows ambivalence among voters, a factor that has allowed both sides to claim they are in the mainstream. The Wirthlin Group, a Republican polling firm working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has found that about 54 percent of those surveyed support an antiabortion position, meaning they either oppose abortion in all cases or favor it only in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother's life. But when asked how they identify themselves, about 55 percent of those surveyed call themselves "pro-choice," according to the group's Bill McIntuff.

The terms of the debate during the last year have centered largely around limiting access to abortion with a variety of hurdles. In Pennsylvania, for example, a new law requires women to notify their husbands before having an abortion, imposes a 24-hour waiting period, bans abortions for sex selections and prohibits abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy. South Carolina adopted a parental consent law, while West Virginia limited public funding of abortions.

Some states have attempted to go further, debating legislation designed to

nd virtually all legal abortions. Guam enacted such a law, banning abortions except where the life of the mother is threatened. Idaho's legislature approved a measure -- vetoed by Gov. Cecil D. Andrus (D) -- that prohibited abortions except in cases of rape, incest, profound fetal deformity or to save the life of the mother. In Louisiana, the legislature is preparing to attempt to override Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer's (D) promised veto of a similar measure.

Although the record in political campaigns is mixed, with each side pointing to victories that bolster its position, the tone of the debate has changed. Before the Webster decision, candidates supporting abortion rights generally kept those views quiet. Today, candidates opposing abortion find themselves on the defensive and often try to focus on other issues.

This is in part because of two victories last November by candidates favoring abortion rights. Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) used the issue aggressively in his successful campaign against former Virginia attorney general Marshall Coleman last fall. In New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio (D) was aided when his opponent Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.) flip-flopped on the question of abortion restrictions and never regained his balance.

Those elections frightened Republican Party leaders and soon after, Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater declared his party a "big tent," one large enough to accommodate people with differing views on an issue that had been a point of faith among the GOP coalition throughout the 1980s.

In many contests this fall, abortion will not be a dominant issue. But activists point to gubernatorial and Senate races in Iowa, gubernatorial races in Florida, Texas and Ohio and several other contests as bellwether elections that may influence legislators as they assemble next year.

Willke predicted "a very large harvest of bills that are pro-life" coming before legislatures next year. Abortion-rights activists say they fear a gradual legislative erosion of access to abortion may now be more likely than a single legal stroke outlawing most abortions.

The Supreme Court's latest pronouncement on abortion all but guarantees a continuing legislative maelstrom. Ruling on parental notification laws in Minnesota and Ohio last week, the court signaled its continuing division on the abortion question and issued what both sides took to be another invitation to state legislatures to test additional restrictions.

"It's obvious now that Webster was in fact the turning point we thought it was when it was handed down," said NRLC general counsel James Bopp. "The Webster decision was interpreted as an invitation to the states to pass additional abortion restrictions and that the court would uphold them. With {last week's} decisions we found that the Supreme Court's offer was a bona fide offer, and that we have seen consolidated on the court a five-member majority that are prepared to uphold substantial restrictions on abortion."

Liberal Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe agreed. "It was clear after Webster and it is clear now that it's a new ballgame for significant legislative restrictions on abortion," he said. "Just which ones will be so extreme as to be struck down while the current composition of the court holds is very difficult to predict."

Just as most legislatures have shied away from a wholesale undoing of abortion rights, however, the court -- at least with its current membership -- appears skittish about declaring outright that the Roe decision is overturned and that there is no constitutional protection for abortion.

"We still do not have a fifth vote from Sandra Day O'Connor saying Roe v. Wade is out the window," said conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein. Last week's rulings, he said, suggest it would be "quite foolhardy to go as far as Louisiana . . . and swallow the whole bullet right now."

The abortion issue will be before the court again next term when the justices rule on the constitutionality of Bush administration regulations prohibiting federally funded clinics from giving poor women information about abortion.

Court challenges to the Guam law and a portion of the Pennsylvania statute are scheduled to be heard this fall. Federal judges have blocked enforcement of the Guam restrictions and the husband notification and informed consent provisions of the Pennsylvania law.

And the recent Minnesota and Ohio decisions may spur a number of states to move to reinstate existing laws on parental consent or notification that are not in force because of earlier court rulings. At the time of the decisions, laws requiring minors to obtain parental consent before having abortions were in place in nine of the 22 states that have adopted such laws since the Roe decision; three of 10 states with parental notification statutes enforced the laws.

The clash over abortion has become most intense among Roman Catholics in the United States, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops elevating the issue to the top of its agenda and threatening excommmunication of those who disagree with the church's antiabortion stance.

"I don't see them backing off," said Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice. "They have invested a huge amount of moral and political authority in this single issue. And Catholic politicians show no sign of backing off. So you've got a stalemate."


July 3: The Supreme Court decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services gives the states more room to restrict the availability of abortions.

Oct. 12: Proposals submitted by Florida Gov. Bob Martinez (R) to limit and regulate abortions are defeated in committee votes before reaching floor debate.

Nov. 7: Gubernatorial candidates Rep. James Florio (D) and Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D), abortion rights supporters, win elections in New Jersey and Virginia against anti-abortion contenders Rep. Jim Courter (R) and Marshall Coleman (R).

Nov. 12: "Mobilize for Women's Lives" holds abortion-rights rallies in more than 150 cities across the country, including an event in Washington, D.C. which draws a crowd of approximately 150,000.

Nov. 17: Pennsylvania Gov. Robert F. Casey (D) signs legislation which outlaws abortion after the 24th week of pregnancy except when the woman's life is severely threatened, institutes a 24-hour waiting period to receive an abortion, prohibits "sex selection" abortions and requires a married woman to give proof to her physican that her husband has been notified of her decision to have an abortion.

Dec. 9: Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Killea, denied communion from a Roman Catholic bishop because of her abortion-rights stand, wins a close race in a California state senate election against an antiabortion opponent. 1990

Jan. 19: Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater tells a winter meeting of the committee that the Republicans should consider themselves an "umbrella party" open to all views on abortion. The party platform contains an antiabortion plank.

March 19: Gov. Joseph Ada (D) of Guam, an unincorporated U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean, signs a bill that criminalizes the advocacy of abortion and prohibits all abortions except when the life of the mother is endangered.

March 30: Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus (D) vetoes a bill which called for banning all abortions in the state except in the cases of a threat to the physical health or life of the mother, rape reported within seven days, incest if the victim is under 18 years old and severe fetal deformity. The legislation would have outlawed more than 90 percent of the abortions now legally performed in Idaho.

April 28: The National Right to Life Committee holds a rally in Washington, D.C. which attracts approximately 200,000 people.

June 14: Cardinal John O'Connor, archbishop of New York, suggests in an article in the weekly newspaper of the archdiocese that Roman Catholic officeholders who support abortion-rights could face excommunication.

June 25: The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, strikes down a Minnesota law that requires pregnant teenagers to notify both parents before having an abortion. The constitutionality of two-parent notification laws is upheld, however, provided they allow teenagers the right to seek a court waiver from the requirement. The court also upholds an Ohio parental notification law.

June 27: Lousiana Gov. Charles E. "Buddy" Roemer (D) says he will veto legislation passed by both houses of the state legislature which would criminalize all abortions except when the mother's life is in danger and mandate hard labor for those doctors who perform the procedure.