Aborted Revolution?

Sue Myrick should be a symbol of a triumphant autumn for the anti-abortion movement. Next month the Republican from North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District will be one of 40 new House members -- including six women -- who oppose abortion. In the Senate, nine of 11 new members are also opponents of abortion. Not a single anti-abortion incumbent of either party was defeated by a pro-choice challenger. Although head counts vary depending on how the issue is defined, both houses are, at the most, a handful of votes away from anti-abortion majorities. But Myrick, 53, an advertising executive and the former mayor of Charlotte, says abortion policy is not a priority. ""I don't see it as an issue,'' she said. ""It was not an issue in the campaign. It was rarely even asked about.''

Republicans may be ascendant on Capitol Hill, but they've grown skittish about abortion. Several forces have combined to push the issue to the margins in the last two years: extremist rhetoric at the Republican National Convention in Houston; President Clinton's appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, strengthening the majority that upheld Roe v. Wade in 1992, and a series of violent attacks on abortion clinics and doctors. Republicans can also read polls. In one survey published by The Wall Street Journal last month, just 18 percent of GOP voters cited abortion as the issue most important to them, behind taxes, crime, welfare and health care. Senior party leaders like National Chairman Haley Barbour and a group of pro-choice governors, including William Weld of Massachusetts, are trying to back the GOP away from abortion as a litmus test.

Abortion was scarcely visible in the 10-point ""Contract With America'' signed by Myrick and other Republican freshmen. The sole provision, a ""gag rule'' barring use of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) funds for abortion counseling, was quickly soft-pedaled by Republican leaders. They are clearly eager to defer debates over social issues that could derail a consensus on the contract, which emphasizes tax cuts, spending reductions and welfare reform. ""There's a realism among pro-life elected officials,'' says Republican strategist Bill Kristol, who has advised the party to limit its legislative ambitions on abortion. ""Given the current composition of the court and the current administration (a pro-choice president), there are limits to what we can accomplish. No politician likes to expend a lot of effort when the barriers are, for the time being, insuperable.'' Activists are also uncertain about the depth of the newcomers' convictions. ""I think we're unsure how much stomach there is to revisit these issues,'' says an aide to Rep. Henry Hyde, a patriarch of anti-abortion activism.

Anti-abortion activists say they are willing to wait while the Congress disposes of the 100-day contract. But on day 101 ""it's our turn,'' says Dr. John Willke, president of the Life Issues Institute in Cincinnati. While a frontal assault on abortion rights is unlikely, the movement could use its political gains to chip away at some of the modest victories won by pro-choice forces in the last two years. Conservatives might try to weaken language in the new federal law protecting access to abortion clinics, and eliminate exceptions to the Hyde amendment that allow for federally funded abortions in cases of pregnancy by rape or incest. They hope to reinstate the prohibition on locally funded abortions for low-income women in the District of Columbia, lifted by Congress last year. And they're likely to impose once again the ban on federally funded fetal-tissue research, reversed by President Clinton in 1993. (Clinton may have headed off a confrontation in Congress last week when he barred federal funds for creation of human embryos for scientific research.)

Conservatives could also use their gains to force showcase hearings on abortion-related issues. Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican and a leading abortion opponent, wants hearings on possible links between abortion and breast cancer. ""I have absolutely no doubt that these issues will be aired,'' says Smith.

One important barometer of the new abortion politics may be RU-486, the abortion drug mifepristone. In the 1980s the drug was the focus of intense protest and boycott threats against the manufacturer, Roussel Uclaf of France, which eventually granted U.S. rights to the Population Council, a New York research organization. Clinical trials, now underway in at least a dozen U.S. cities, have drawn surprisingly little protest. That quiescence may be short-lived. Congress could contrive to delay FDA review until after 1996, when a Republican may be sitting in the White House. ""I don't think we should be fooled by the Republican leadership's attempt to moderate their rhetoric. That's a smoke screen,'' says Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

But the smoke shrouds a diminished battlefield. A pro-choice Supreme Court, the presidential veto and a public interested in broad, fundamental reform elsewhere give the anti-abortion movement's advances in Congress limited relevance. For the moment, at least, the politics of abortion are likely to play out as the politics of stalemate.