CHICAGO — WHEN THE WEBSTER decision was made by the Supreme Court, defenders of abortion were almost hysterical and critics of it were jubilant. It seemed only a matter of time for the court to reverse Roe v. Wade, the decision that legitimized abortion. The drama of every Supreme Court nomination would henceforth center on the impact another vote would have on the abortion cases.
But Webster was really the first step on the way to confirmation of the place abortion now holds in our society. Politicians were skittish in new ways after Webster.
It became clear that reversing Roe would throw the problem back to state legislatures, where opposition to abortion would wound candidates, especially Republican candidates, severely. lTC Polls showed that many, even of those who disapprove of abortion, do not want it criminalized. Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater made it clear that he would not ask for adherence to the party's platform stand against abortion.
Since then politicians have been trimming and adjusting, sidling quickly or by stages away from hard opposition to abortion. Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia is the most recent politician to do this, in a move that columnist William Buckley described this way: ''The departure of Nunn from the pro-life legal ranks is a pretty heavy blow.'' And then Mr. Buckley went on to deliver an even more severe blow, an almost fatal one, to the pro-life movement.
Mr. Buckley, after criticizing what may be Senator Nunn's politically opportune reasons for the shift, admits that his argument for change is ''more nearly convincing than not.'' Mr. Nunn does not say that abortion is morally right, but only that legal prohibition of it would not work. Mr. Buckley agrees: ''If abortion, which last year arrested the lives of just over 1.5 million people, is going to proceed anyway, there isn't much point in striving to make it illegal.''
There is nothing new in this position. It is exactly the stand Mario Cuomo has taken. The New York governor opposes abortion, but says that attempts to make it illegal would bring on a replay of Prohibition days.
What is new, and what makes the whole situation different, is the man now taking Mr. Cuomo's stand. Mr. Buckley is considered with reason the intellectual conscience of the conservative movement in America -- on abortion as on other issues. The Human Life Review, the principal journal of anti-abortion intellectuals, is edited and written by people closely associated with Mr. Buckley and his magazine, National Review. There were earlier signs that even conservatives were easing away from total opposition to abortion: Peggy Noonan altered early drafts of her book on the Reagan years to soften what she had to say on the matter. But Mr. Buckley's statement is in a different category altogether.
His column will have a seismic effect, not only because of his conservative credentials but because of his Catholicism. What will Cardinal John O'Connor, so harsh in his criticism of Governor Cuomo over the years, say about Mr. Buckley? After all, Mr. Buckley has more persuasive force with a large body of Catholics, on the level of principle, than the governor ever had. How can Cardinal O'Connor ignore it when William Buckley joins Mario Cuomo?
Furthermore, consider the impact on the Supreme Court itself. Mr. Buckley's testimony is a culminating one on the question of enforceability. No court wants to change a subtle legal position if the result is going to be chaos and defiance of the law. There are many prudential and jurisprudential reasons for staying with an imperfect situation when those are the stakes. And if even William Buckley, who opposes abortion personally, has come to the conclusion that a ban would be unenforceable, the evidence is reaching a stage where the court cannot ignore it, no matter what Judge Souter may feel on the matter.
This does not mean the question will go away from our politics. Those who believe abortion is murder are quite rightly adamant in their opposition to it, and willing to bear witness to their belief in courageous ways, going to jail for the cause. But political reality has arrived on the scene, and the scene will never be the same. The worst of the battle is over.