States Stitching Patchwork Quilt of Abortion Laws Abortion Has Largely Become a Legislative, Rather Than Judicial Issue. in the Last 15 Months, the Supreme Court Has Turned over to States Control of Access Laws and Has Upheld the Constitutionality of Parental Notification Laws. Three States Have Already Passed Stricter Legislation. Others Take Up the Issue Next Year. Series: NATIONAL ISSUES FORUM. Part 1 of a 3-Part Series. First of Two Articles Appearing Today

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PATRICIA IRELAND holds up a map of the United States, about 20 of the states colored in black, and declares defiantly to the assembled abortion-rights activists:

"These are the states Newsweek predicted would likely restrict abortion after the Webster decision."

"And this," continues the executive vice-president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), holding up a different map, "is what has actually happened!"

Only three states are blackened. A cheer goes up among the largely young, female crowd, gathered for a NOW conference on abortion-clinic defense.

Indeed, since the Supreme Court's July 1989 ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which paved the way for states to limit access to abortion, only Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and West Virginia - plus the US Pacific island of Guam - have signed new restrictions into law.

This is not for lack of trying. Since Webster, more than 400 pieces of abortion-related legislation - four-fifths of it anti-abortion - have been introduced in 41 states.

But with an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, an anti-abortion White House, an anti-abortion US House of Representatives, and an ambivalent American public, it may be only a matter of time before many of the states considered likely to restrict abortion do so.

In the past year, both Idaho and Louisiana passed laws criminalizing most abortions, only to see them vetoed by the state's traditionally anti-abortion governors for being too restrictive. But anti-abortion advocates plan to try again next year.

Abortion-rights leaders attribute their success so far in staving off anti-abortion legislation to two key factors: A reinvigoration of their movement, sparked by the fear that the Supreme Court had now begun to "chip away" at the broad abortion rights established by its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling; and squeamishness among lawmakers about voting on this most divisive of issues in an election year. Many state legislatures decided to put the matter off until 1991.

"We expected a bad year, but it didn't materialize," says NOW president Molly Yard. "Am I worried that our side will become complacent? You bet. But people have to understand that all the legislation that was killed will be reintroduced in just a couple of months."

In the long run, analysts of abortion politics see the US looking increasingly like a patchwork quilt, with abortion virtually banned in some states and protected in others. As in the pre-Roe days, women with money will always be able to fly someplace to have an abortion; women with lesser means will not.

Right-to-lifers acknowledge that Webster has galvanized the opposition. But they argue that misperceptions - aided by what they see as a predominantly pro-choice media - have clouded the picture.

"As a result of the pro-abortion awakening, there's an impression that the pro-abortion people are winning and pro-life is losing," says Burke Balch, who handles state legislative strategy for the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).

Mr. Balch argues that in state legislative races, the pro-choice movement has won more elections where abortion was an issue than it has lost - a claim made with equal assertiveness by abortion-rights advocates.

Further, Balch says, the four pieces of pro-life legislation signed into law since Webster are the most in any year since Roe v. Wade. Media coverage - like the Newsweek article touted by NOW's Ms. …