An article yesterday stated that a controversial late-term abortion procedure known as intact dilation and extraction is believed to be used only rarely. In fact, there are no reliable statistics on the frequency of this procedure in the United States, although medical specialists say it appears to be quite rare. (Published 05/01/96)

Nearly 30 Protestant and Jewish leaders have signed a letter of support for President Clinton's veto of legislation passed by Congress that would have banned a controversial late-term abortion procedure.

The leaders' decision to put their names on the public letter came in response to sharp criticism of the president by the Vatican and the nation's Catholic cardinals, who denounced the veto and urged Catholics to lobby to overturn it. The letter will be released today at a news conference here.

Like the Catholic cardinals, the religious leaders on the other side of the emotional issue say that they, too, have derived their position from religious and moral principles and their belief in the sacredness of human life.

"We are convinced," the letter says, "that each woman who is faced with such difficult moral decisions must be free to decide how to respond, in consultation with her doctor, her family, and God. Neither we as religious leaders, nor the president, nor the Congress -- none of us -- can discern God's will as well as the woman herself, and that is where we believe the decision must remain."

The abortion procedure that Congress wanted to ban is known as intact dilation and extraction. It is believed to be used only rarely, and mostly in cases when the woman's life is at risk or the fetus is seriously deformed.

The antiabortion lobby refers to the procedure as "partial birth abortion" because it involves removing a fetus through the birth canal, usually feet first, which sometimes requires crushing the skull and suctioning out the brain.

Clinton vetoed the bill in a White House ceremony attended by women who told of their wrenching decisions when faced with this dilemma. The White House later mailed the transcript of this session to a list of religious leaders.

"I found it compelling," said the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, which is attended by the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton. "These are matters where the law needs to proceed with sensitivity and compassion," said Wogaman, who was among those who signed the letter. "In most of these cases, these were pregnancies that were dearly wanted. So to dump on top of the tragedy the heavy hand of the law would be unfeeling."

Congress has not scheduled a vote on an override of the president's veto. Some congressional leaders say they would like to wait for public opinion against the veto to build. The bill originally passed both houses of Congress when some traditionally abortion rights Democrats and Republicans sided with abortion opponents.

The nature of the operation has aroused the passionate opposition of many in the religious community. Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York has denounced the president's veto from the pulpit, and some evangelical ministers have vowed to mobilize their congregations against it.

Until now, religious leaders who support the right to abortion have not been as vocal as the opponents on this bill. But Ann Thompson Cook, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which sponsored the abortion rights letter, said that every religious leader she asked to sign did so willingly. Those who signed today's letter include the Rev. James Andrews, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA); the Rev. Edmond L. Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; the Rev. Paul Sherry, president of the United Church of Christ; Thomas White Wolf Fassett, executive secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church; the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in the District; and Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.