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The Catholic Church heightened the abortion debate when it recently took the unprecedented action of sending a large delegation of cardinals and bishops to Washington to plead for an override to President Clinton's veto of the late-term abortion ban, passed by the House and Senate this year.

Lake-term abortion is not performed on the whim of a woman who decides at the last minute that she no longer wants to be pregnant. Abortion is already outlawed for that reason in the third trimester. In New York, the only time abortion is legal after 24 weeks is to save the mother's life or health, or when the fetus itself is incapable of sustaining life or has died in utero. Any other abortion in the last three months of a pregnancy is a crime.

If we could put aside the inflammatory oratory for a moment and listen to the facts we would find:

There is no such thing as "partial-birth abortion" in medical terms. The language in federal and state legislation is incorrect.

Only two physicians -- one in Ohio and one in California -- are known to use the D & E (dilation & extraction) procedure as their first method of abortion after 20 weeks. Others use it only when there is no other way to protect the mother.

Only a little over 1/2 of 1 percent of all abortions occur at or after 20 weeks, and all third trimester abortion are performed only for severe fetal abnormality or risk to the life of the pregnant women.

This is not exactly an epidemic worthy of federal legislation; it is clearly a difficult and last-resort effort to protect the health and lives of a small number of women who deserve far more consideration than they've been shown so far.

Can we all vote to keep this painful, personal decision where it belongs: outside of politics and within the caring hands of the doctors and patients who already suffer untold grief over the tragic circumstance they face?

Mary Ellen Smolinski Boston

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