WASHINGTON — ADVOCATES of abortion rights won a victory this week by preventing a key abortion bill from passing in the Senate.
But their cheers are subdued.
They know, that this bill - which, for the first time since abortion was legalized, would ban a particular method of abortion - will pass in the end, says abortion-rights leader Kate Michelman.
And they know that the 104th Congress, which has considered a wide array of abortion issues, has been largely successful in its ''major assault on the freedom to choose,'' says Ms. Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
But for the moment, opponents of abortion aren't cheering.
''It's obvious that this bill will be weakened'' when it comes back to the Senate for its final vote, says Helen Alvare, spokeswoman for the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The bill in question would ban a procedure that is rarely used - numbering in the hundreds - among the 1.5 million abortions performed annually in the United States. But even the name of the procedure has become controversial. In medical parlance, it is called an ''intact dilation and evacuation.'' Opponents call it a ''partial-birth abortion,'' because they say the fetus is often alive when it is partially delivered and then killed.
The push to ban this procedure signals an important milestone in America's abortion wars. For the first time since the Supreme Court ruled in 1973 in its Roe v. Wade decision that abortion is a constitutionally protected right, Congress is moving to ban a particular method of abortion.
The move also represents an ''unprecedented'' effort by Congress to limit medical practice, said doctors speaking at a press conference organized by Planned Parenthood. ''The fact is, very simply stated, Congress does not belong in decision-making about medical procedures or treatment,'' said Allan Rosenfield, dean of Columbia University School of Public Health.
Last week the House approved the bill by a wide margin. But even if both houses pass it, President Clinton will veto it. So for now, it's an exercise for show. But in the meantime, the public is being treated to gruesome ads and displays detailing how the procedure is performed - and, anti-abortion advocates hope, is growing more opposed to abortion.
Abortion-rights supporters say the bill represents one step in an effort to ban all abortions. The bill's author, Rep. Charles Canady (R) of Florida, calls such assertions ''fantasy.'' But Ms. Alvare of the bishops' conference doesn't rule out this goal. ''If this should prompt attempts to ban abortion, then that will reflect where the public is,'' she says.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted to send the bill down to its Judiciary Committee for hearings, and then report back in 19 days. While in the committee, opponents of the bill hope to change the language regarding an exception to protect the life of the mother.
As the bill currently stands, a doctor who performed the procedure would have to provide an ''affirmative defense'' that the method was necessary to save the life of the mother.
The burden of proof would be so onerous that it would effectively end the use of the procedure, say advocates. Doctors would stop doing these abortions to avoid the possibility of prosecution, they say.
Instead, abortion-rights advocates are trying to insert a more liberal exception for cases where the mother's life is in danger.
Abortion opponents are concerned this change would take the teeth out of the bill. They also fear their adversaries will succeed in inserting language that would keep the procedure legal in cases where the health, as opposed to the life, of the mother is in danger.
Anti-abortion activists say their foes use the ''health of the mother'' excuse liberally as protective cover to allow all abortions.
Still, by pushing the bill down to the Judiciary Committee, its proponents have found one reason to be happy: more opportunity to tell the public about this type of abortion.