Making Abortion Safe, Legal - And Rare

DURING the campaign, Bill Clinton pledged to make abortion safe, legal and rare. Some critics immediately saw spinelessness, if not outright duplicity, in Clinton's words. Just another case, they said, of his trying to have it both ways. Waffling, wiggling, wavering.

Even before he took the oath of office, Clinton had managed to bend and break enough campaign promises to keep commentators like me in steady work. But the anniversary of the landmark abortion-rights case, Roe v. Wade, grants occasion to back President Clinton on an abortion policy that contains no inherent contradictions, despite the critics who say otherwise.

This is not an example of taking both sides. This is a rare example of developing a wise and humane strategy on an issue so often discussed only in extremes.

Friday - two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the right to a legal abortion a fundamental one - brought out the usual theater, the usual pitched rhetoric from activists on both sides. The anti's are the most adamant, since they have lost the White House. There are those among them who enjoy thrusting dead fetuses in the faces of their opponents, yelling "baby killer," humiliating women entering abortion clinics.

But the anti-abortionists intentionally miscast the views of most reproductive-rights activists. I know no one who is for abortion, no woman who has had an abortion who took the ordeal lightly, no family planner who suggests that abortion should substitute for routine birth control.

On the contrary. America's high abortion rate points up a peculiar view of many of the far-right activists who oppose legal abortion: Many of them oppose contraception, as well. Yet, the only way to lower the abortion rate is to make contraceptives much more widely available.

The Reagan-Bush years gave us an ugly hostility toward women seeking advice on birth control and abortion, and a series of policy-makers who had no use for family planning. William Archer, the man Bush put in charge of family planning, is an unmarried Catholic opposed to contraception. No wonder the United States has one of the highest abortion rates in the developed world.

President Clinton celebrated the anniversary of Roe v. Wade by signing executive orders that will eliminate some of the more pernicious policies that bubbled up over the 12 years. He dumped the "gag rule," which prevented counselors in federally funded clinics from even mentioned the word abortion. And he ended the ban on federal research using fetal tissue.

But the new president must do more. Over the last 30 years, private-sector involvement in contraceptive development has diminished; federal contributions to applied contraceptive development have declined.

As a consequence, few new methods of contraception are being developed. Many sexually active adults still cannot find a convenient and safe contraceptive. President Clinton can devote federal dollars to research and to ad campaigns that encourage family planning.

Such a policy will never win over the ultra-rightists who do not wish to give women the right to their own bodies. But it would help to quell the unease of many Americans who believe - rightly - that the 1.5 million abortions performed annually in this country is too many.

Safe, legal, rare. It makes sense.

Cynthia Tucker's column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.