THE future looked bleak for Helen. She was 16, an orphan, a school dropout. She was also poor, pregnant - and unmarried. Helen (not her real name) sought help at ``The Hub,'' a center for troubled teens in the South Bronx. At the time she was three months with child. This Hispanic teen-ager received professional counseling. She was apprised of her immediate options - carry the baby to term and keep it, put the infant up for adoption, or have a legal abortion. Helen chose the last alternative and a Hub counselor arranged for an abortion at an in-house clinic.
Now this youth is living in a temporary shelter, has returned to school, and is seeking a job. She is learning to respect herself and gain control of her life, says her counselor. Helen insists she doesn't want to become pregnant again, at least not until she is mature and ready to take on the responsibility of a family.
Hub director Mary Morales stresses that this inner-city, teen-age refuge - situated in one of the nation's most distressed areas - is not strictly an ``abortion clinic,'' although it maintains facilities for this operation.
It is a multi-service health care and family planning unit designed to help put troubled youths back on their feet. School and job counseling, recreational programs, and information about contraception are all offered.
``We try to ensure that they [the teen-agers] know what they doing, ... what their options are,'' Ms. Morales explains.
Hub aide Ralph Gomez stresses that young people need goals, including those that will encourage them to delay early sexual activity. ``A major issue is self-esteem,'' Mr. Gomez says. An understanding of self-worth goes far ``to prevent babies from having babies,'' he explains.
The Hub program is underwritten by Planned Parenthood of New York City. PP has been under sharp criticism, here and across the nation, for promoting abortions, particularly among unmarried teens. Its headquarters here in Manhattan has been the target of bomb threats and random explosions.
``We're neither advocates for abortion nor childbearing,'' says Al Moran, New York's Planned Parenthood executive director. ``We believe in the right of individuals to make a choice.''
The whole issue of abortion - and whether it should be left to individual choice or be controlled, or even outlawed, by the courts - sharply divides the American public.
The debate was brought into focus 15 years ago with a landmark United States Supreme Court ruling, Roe v. Wade, which held that women may freely choose for themselves whether to carry their babies to term, at least in the early months of pregnancy.
Since 1973, so-called right-to-life groups, which see abortion as murder or baby-killing, have sought through federal legislation or litigation to overthrow Roe. Of late, the emphasis has been on limiting teen-age abortions, which account for one-third of the annual 1.5 million terminated pregnancies in the United States.
Here are some current trends:
The US Supreme Court has stood its ground on Roe v. Wade, reaffirming a woman's right to privacy as the constitutional underpinning for abortion and contraception. With recent conservative leanings on the high court, however, the pro-choice majority has grown thin. Some believe that the expected confirmation of Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy to replace retired middle-of-the-roader Lewis Powell Jr. could swing the court to a new position on abortion.
Most states place major restrictions on abortion in the latter stages of pregnancy. And more than half require minors to obtain parental consent or to notify adult guardians before an abortion.
Some state laws, including those in Illinois and Pennsylvania, have been struck down by the courts as too intrusive on individual rights. But new legislation is on the horizon - urged by national right-to-life groups and the religious right.
The abortion issue has burst full blown into US politics. Reagan administration officials, including US Attorney General Edwin Meese III, have vowed to get Roe overturned, or modified, before they leave office at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, the White House is sponsoring federal regulations that would deny public funding to family-planning groups that perform or even advocate abortions.
Two Republican presidential hopefuls, Pat Robertson and Jack Kemp, are speaking out bluntly against abortion. Mr. Robertson, a former television evangelist, recently spoke of abortion as a ``modern-day holocaust that threatens to push the nation to the brink of economic chaos.''
Mr. Kemp, a New York congressman, chided fellow politicians who ``voice personal opposition to abortion but refuse to lift a finger to do anything about it.''
Religious and moral issues continue to swirl around abortion and heighten the controversy.
The official Vatican position is anti-abortion and anti-contraception. Fundamentalist Christians, like Robertson, also take a strong stand against abortion on religious grounds. Liberal Protestants and Jews, however, tend toward individual choice.
In their new book, ``The Abortion Question,'' Hyman Rodman, Betty Sarvis, and Joy Bonar say the central issue in the abortion controversy is ``the moral debate between those arguing for the fetus's right to live and those arguing for the woman's right to choose to terminate the pregnancy.'' These moral choices often clash, they point out.
MANY Roman Catholics who believe that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception - and thus oppose abortion as the taking of a human life - are able to balance their personal convictions with an opposing public outlook.
Referring to abortion, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, for example, told University of Notre Dame theological students - in what is now an often-quoted speech - that ``the price of seeking to force one's beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us.''
Do legal restrictions on abortion - or lack of them - affect the rate of such operations?
A 1987 report from the Federal Centers for Disease Control indicates that the number of abortions in the US has decreased for the first time since 1969. But these statistics are four years old.
This study also showed a decline in teen-age abortions. And it concluded that white women were less likely to have abortions than minorities.
PLANNED PARENTHOOD'S Al Moran insists, however, that in New York two-thirds of terminated pregnancies by teen-agers are by ``middle class'' youths. ``More low-income, minority kids go to term,'' he says. ``They have fewer options [for schooling, jobs, and career]. For many kids in the South Bronx, having a baby is not giving up that much.''
Stanley Henshaw, a researcher for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says there was some increase in abortions nationwide after the Roe ruling in 1973. But he adds that the numbers have ``stabilized since 1980.''
Mr. Henshaw also notes that the availability of ``legal'' abortions has reduced deaths resulting from illegal operations. He also points out that state laws don't appear to change numbers significantly. Some restrictions, however, ``tend to affect the poor rather than the middle class and blacks rather than whites,'' Henshaw adds.
How can society best stem the tide of abortions, especially among young people?
Maris Vinovskis, a University of Michigan historian and former consultant on adolescent pregnancy to the Reagan administration, says he feels that the basic attitude of youth toward sex change. In his just-released book, he writes: ``If we want to decrease adolescent sexual activity, we need to convey, in strong and unambiguous terms, that early sexual activity is simply inappropriate and unacceptable for young teen-agers....
``We need to impress upon our children that they should simply say no to sexual activity in the same way we want them to say no to drugs and alcohol. Children should see human sexuality as a natural and normal part of life, but as inappropriate for young teen-agers.''
Key US Supreme Court rulings on abortion:
1973. Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court held that the implied constitutional right of privacy protects a woman's decision to terminate a pregnancy. It allowed state regulation of abortion after a fetus has matured.
1976. Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth. The court held that a husband's consent was not required for a firsttrimester abortion.
1976. Bellotti v. Baird. The court held that states may not give parents of unmarried minors a blanket veto over abortions sought by their daughters.
1977. Beal v. Doe & Maher v. Roe. The court upheld the right of states to refuse to spend public funds for abortions for low-income women unless an abortion is necessary to save a mother's life.
1979. Bellotti v. Baird. The court held that a state may not require parental consent to a minor's abortion unless the young woman is allowed the opportunity to show the court that she is mature enough to make her own decision or that an abortion is in her best interests.
1980. Harris v. McRae. The court held that the federal government could limit medicaid funding only to abortions necessary to save the woman's life.
1983. City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health. The court struck down state ``informed consent'' provisions requiring a physician to tell patients that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception and to list possible physical and emotional consequences of abortion.
1986. Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The court struck down a state requirement that a physician use the same care in aborting a fetus as he would in delivering it as well as a method providing the best chance for a fetus to be born alive.
1987. Hartigan v. Zbaraz. The court upheld, by a 4-to-4 vote, an appellate court ruling striking down a state law requiring some minor women to wait 24 hours after telling their parents or a judge of the decision to have an abortion. Since this ruling established no precedent, the case may be reheard later.
- Compiled from Editorial Research Reports
Legal views differ worldwide
Since World War II almost all industrialized nations have liberalized abortion laws, says a recent report by the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute.
This study also indicates that since the early 1980s abortion has been more readily available in four countries with populations of 1 million or more - Portugal, Taiwan, Turkey, and Spain.
Only Romania has, of late, reduced access to legalized abortion. And the Republic of Ireland has amended its Constitution to prevent future liberation of current laws.
Most nations, however, do place some restrictions on abortion, such as mandatory counseling, waiting periods, and medical certifications that specify that conditions for abortion exist.
Some recent developments:
In Canada, the government has established an abortion referral clearinghouse in Toronto to ensure women swift access to the procedure in a ``hassle-free environment.''
Efforts are under way to amend the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain to ban such operations after 18 weeks of pregnancy. Present law allows restrictions only after 28 weeks. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is said to favor a 24-week limit. Parliamentary debate is expected later this month.
Controversy continues in the Soviet Union over a rising abortion rate. Recent reports say some women have had as many as 10 pregnancy terminations. The Soviet press blames the increase on the lack of modern contraceptives or of a family planning service. Demand for condoms and other contraceptives far exceeds supply. The ``pill'' is virtually unheard of.
Doctors in Greece estimate that about 2,500 women sought abortions in 1986 out of fear that their babies might be harmed by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
Although abortion is illegal in Kenya, about 3,500 teen-agers undergo the operation annually at a Nairobi national hospital. These young women are reportedly in life-threatening situations, having experienced ``foul abortions'' in clandestine clinics.
East Berlin gynecologist Anita Weissbach-Rieger reports that many girls in East Germany treat abortion as a contraceptive. One out of 5 gets pregnant before age 18. Many show up for hospital abortions ``as if they were coming to a cosmetic appointment,'' she says.
An association of doctors in Bonn is calling upon the government to stem the tide of rising abortions in West Germany by providing more information on pregnancy, helping would-be mothers to have their babies delivered, and setting up care facilities for unwanted babies.