PARIS — AS the battle over abortion whipped across the United States in recent years, a relative calm reigned over Western Europe. It could be the calm before the storm. Abortion-rights proponents and anti-abortionists alike are describing the repercussions of the US Supreme Court decision on July 3 limiting abortion as a ``wind from the West''
Anti-abortion activists in Britain are gearing up for a battle to reduce the period during which an abortion is legal. French and Italian activists say the US decision gave a boost to efforts to outlaw fetal experimentation, discourage physicians from performing abortions, and curtail government reimbursement of abortion costs.
For pro-choice supporters, on the other hand, the Supreme Court decision is an unwelcome harbinger of what may be in store for Europe.
``We call it a wind from the west, but it is a chill wind,'' says Marie-France Casalis, a member of the board of directors of the French National Family Planning Office. ``The decision has plunged European feminists into fear, disbelief, and worry.''
Recently enacted European laws allowing abortion seem to have earned public acceptance without the political turmoil and even violence that has torn the US. French polls show, for example, that 14 years after abortion was legalized amid huge controversy, nearly two-thirds of the French approve the current law.
But anti-abortion activists say that large numbers in their ranks are losing a sense of resignation and challenging the status quo. ``All across Europe, anti-abortion supporters are heartened by what has taken place in the US,'' says Bill Sherwin, executive secretary of the International Right to Life Federation in Rome. ``A lot of groups have been in the doldrums for a number of years. But with this decision, we're already feeling a renewed commitment and enthusiasm. People are back in business.''
Mr. Sherwin says church bells in some Italian villages are being rung when abortions are performed in nearby clinics, ``as a reminder of what risks becoming a banality,'' and that activists in Bavaria are renewing efforts to see the strict anti-abortion sentiments of their region spread throughout Germany.
The earliest battle is likely to take place in Britain, where anti-abortion activists hope to reduce the period during which an abortion can be legally performed and to end Britain's role as a center for abortion in Europe. The British press is predicting the abortion issue will make for some of the new political year's hottest battles.
According to government statistics, more than 13,000 European women traveled to Britain last year to have abortions: more than 5,000 from Ireland, where a anti-abortion amendment entered the Constitution in 1983; more than 3,000 each from France and Spain, 631 from Italy.
Abortion-rights activists view these figures as ``shameful'' as well, but from a different perspective. ``They prove what we learned in the past: that women will go to any length, even threatening their financial and physical well-being, to have an abortion,'' Mrs. Casalis says.
Family Planning in France would like to see French law liberalized to cut down on the number of women traveling to Britain. But commentary from French government officials and a range of parliamentary leaders following the US Supreme Court decision indicate a strong desire to leave the Pandora's box of abortion politics undisturbed.
French officials generally consider the country's abortion law a success, since the number of abortions has dropped, according to government statistics, by more than 10 percent since reimbursement for the cost of having an abortion was approved in 1982. Abortion-rights supporters say the drop is proof that access to abortion, when coupled with free access to contraception and family planning education, actually leads to fewer abortions.
France became the focal point of anti-abortion attention last year when a French company commercialized an abortion-inducing pill, known as RU 486. The manufacturer, Roussel-UCLAF, briefly took the pill off the market under pressure from international, and notably American, anti-abortion groups. But the French government ordered its reinstatement, and the controversy has since died down.
Abortion rights activists here say the ``abortion pill'' experience taught them the need for constant vigilance. But they say the pill itself does not circumvent the need for other abortion methods, or for more liberal abortion laws, since the pill - so far only authorized for use in France and China - is only authorized for use to the 49th day of pregnancy.
French anti-abortion activists refute the government figures that abortions have dropped, insisting that, between use of the abortion pill and abortions sought in Britain, the numbers have not really changed. They hope that a new climate against abortion will strengthen efforts to end government subsidies of the practice.
While the far-right National Front is the only political party opposed to abortion, individual lawmakers among the opposition conservatives oppose cost reimbursement.
``We are in a long war in which the right to reimbursement will be the first step before a return to outlawing abortion altogether,'' says Lucie Olivier, a national director of Let Them Live: SOS Future Mothers, the largest anti-abortion group in France. Mrs. Olivier says the question of scientific experimentation on fetuses is also rallying troops to the anti-abortion cause.
That issue is in fact being used as a workhorse by anti-abortion activists in Britain, who hope to attach amendments on abortion to legislation on fetal experimentation. The issue is also attracting attention in West Germany, where a proposal to outlaw embryo experimentation is before the Bundestag.