PRO-CHOICE advocates are gaining strength in the abortion debate. Pro-choice supporters in the United States won a significant victory in recent days in the House of Representatives. At the same time, public opinion across the country appears to be shifting toward a woman's right to an abortion.
The abortion issue, long simmering in the US, was rekindled this summer by the Supreme Court.
The justices voted to expand the power of states to regulate abortions - a decision that caused a firestorm among women's-rights activists.
Surveys show that in the wake of the court decision, pro-choice advocates are growing stronger, while anti-abortionists are on the defensive.
But analysts warn that public opinion remains fluid. Large numbers of voters, while sympathetic to women who want abortions, remain ambivalent about the issue.
The most tangible indicator of pro-choice strength came last week on Capitol Hill. The House voted 238 to 189 for the District of Columbia's 1990 budget, which includes permission for Washington, D.C., to spend public money for abortions.
The House vote was a reversal of previous policy. Only a year ago, lawmakers had prohibited use of tax money for abortions in the District, even when doctors said they were necessary to save the lives of women.
Public opinion polls also show pro-choice forces gaining. For example, the latest CBS/New York Times poll found that Americans would not favor a prohibition on public hospitals performing abortions. The margin was 57 percent to 35 percent. An earlier CBS/New York Times poll found Americans favoring such a ban.
Analysts are divided on whether the abortion issue will become a major factor in upcoming races for Congress and governorships.
Mervin Field, a veteran California pollster, says the issue has galvanized many voters in the West, especially women. With the Republican Party closely associated with the minority anti-abortion position, Mr. Field suggests the abortion issue could cost the GOP as much as 5 points at the polls.
The CBS/New York Times poll, however, finds that the abortion issue has generated less heat on a nationwide basis than in the nation's capital. Despite the Supreme Court decision, only 8 percent of all voters feel the issue is ``the most important issue facing American women today.'' Before the court decision, 5 percent of women and 4 percent of men felt that way.
But in American politics, California often leads the way. And Field says the abortion issue there could be ``huge.'' He explains:
``You always had a gender gap, where women preferred Democrats. But women have really been jolted by this court decision. It is not only an attack on their privacy, but also on their economic status.
`` Before, they felt that if they got pregnant, they could abort and keep working. Not having that choice ... is a threat to their economic status and their careers.
``This is an explosive, far-reaching issue. And there is no middle ground.''
Ironically, it is the middle ground that Americans seem to prefer on this issue - but they are finding it hard to attain.
Public-opinion surveys indicate that people want to maintain a woman's right to choose an abortion. But the public would also like to make it tougher to get an abortion when there is not an overriding reason for one.
Thus, the CBS/New York Times poll found that the public by a huge margin (68 percent) says government has no right to prevent a woman from getting an abortion, even when the woman's reason is wrong. At the same time, a majority of people (56 percent) say an abortion should be illegal when a woman gets one in order to continue her career.
State-by-state surveys also reflect this ambivalence. A recent poll by Mason-Dixon Opinion Research Inc. in Virginia was typical.
Virginians were first asked: ``Do you agree or disagree that during the first three months of pregnancy, the decision to have an abortion should be left entirely to a woman and her doctor?'' The results: Agree, 66 percent; disagree, 30 percent; not sure, 4 percent.
Yet in the same survey, Virginians were asked: ``Do you agree or disagree that abortion is murder?'' The results: Agree, 45 percent; disagree, 43 percent; not sure, 12 percent.
Thus a large number of Virginia voters, like many nationwide, think abortion is so serious that it could be called murder, yet feel government should not prevent it.