WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "The issue from hell. It never goes away.'' That's the way Robin Rothrock, president of the Louisiana League of Women Voters, describes the abortion issue.
The issue taints and twists election campaigns. Now it's set to dominate the fight over Clarence Thomas' nomination for the Supreme Court. No less than 600 anti-abortion bills have been introduced in legislatures since the Supreme Court in 1989 virtually invited states to pass laws challenging Roe v. Wade's abortion rights.
And now, from Louisiana to Guam, Pennsylvania to the Dakotas, legislative majorities are piling up to curtail abortion.
What's happening? Public-opinion polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans support a woman's right to decide on abortion for herself -- whether or not they personally approve of abortion.
But hundreds of legislators are marching to another drummer. Seven states have enacted fresh laws requiring parental consent for minors to get abortions. A 1989 Pennsylvania law puts all manner of restrictions on abortions and bans them almost entirely in public hospitals.
Guam's 1990 statute prohibits abortions unless there's a grave risk to the mother's life. A 1991 Utah law makes abortions illegal unless there's been rape, incest, immediate danger to the mother's life, or evidence the unborn child will suffer serious congenital defects.
A bill that would ban most abortions barely missed passage in South Dakota. Strong anti-abortion laws failed in Idaho and North Dakota only because of governors' vetoes. Alabama seems poised to pass a bill.
Louisiana now boasts the most extreme statute of all: Overriding a governor's veto for the first time in the 20th century, the legislature in June voted to make abortions illegal unless a woman can prove rape, incest or immediate danger to her life. A doctor who performs an abortion illegally could be sentenced to up to 10 years' hard labor.
There's an almost vengeful aura to the Louisiana statute. One reason airtight proofs are required, said bill sponsor Sam Theriot, is that women can't be trusted -- just to get an abortion, some would ''fake rape.''
Pro-life forces hope the Louisiana law will be the one the Supreme Court accepts to overturn Roe v. Wade. The ''precedent'' for a landmark decision based on Louisiana law is not comforting. In 1896, the Supreme Court upheld Louisiana's rigid school segregation law in Plessy v. Ferguson. That decision condemned black children to decades of sub-par education, lasting until the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision broke the evil spell.
Even if Roe is totally overridden, a sure march of anti-abortion laws across the American political landscape isn't likely. Today's political climate suggests only a few states will go that way.
Only Pennsylvania, of all the larger states, now leans clearly ''pro-life.'' Louisiana, Utah, Idaho, and the Dakotas -- and now Alabama, where a stiff law is pending -- represent a narrow belt of ''pro-life'' states so far.
Massachusetts, New York and California are examples of states where bipartisan leadership is strongly pro-choice. New Jersey Gov. James Florio and Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder's 1989 victories were based importantly on their pro-choice positions.
Connecticut, in 1989, and Maryland, just this spring, passed new bills reaffirming women's rights to an abortion.
Bob Martinez, then governor, was sharply rebuffed by the Florida Legislature when he tried to push through a tough anti-choice bill right after the Supreme Court's 1989 Webster decision.
In May, both the House and Senate of ''Live Free or Die'' New Hampshire passed -- by overwhelming majorities -- resolutions asking their state be made a test market for RU-486, the French-made abortion pill.
''Conservatives saw it as a privacy issue; many Catholics agreed with us that RU-486 may have other medical uses and ought to be tested in the name of scientific freedom,'' said State Sen. Susan McLane.
So while a scuttling of Roe might prompt struggles in more states, the state-by-state solution will mean that most abortion rights in America will remain. Indeed, a few more extremist statutes like Louisiana's might ignite politically targeted voting by millions of middle-class women who up to now haven't seen their personal abortion rights imperiled.
Anti-abortion forces, the Seattle Times editorializes, would ''turn the clock back to the 1960s when poor women in anti-abortion states died in illegal abortions while rich women easily traveled to states or foreign states where abortion was legal.''
The greatest tragedy may be denying abortions to those who need them desperately -- poor teen-age and young women who become pregnant through ignorance or carelessness, and are far too immature for motherhood. That will be the grim result in the ''pro-life'' states, and to a degree everywhere as long as the Reagan-Bush administration rules deny federal funds to parenting clinics if they dare mention abortion to their clients.
Poor women will die, or give birth to unwanted babies. Most of those kids will suffer miserable early years; many will also become children having their own children.
The ''issue from hell'' will be distorting and bedeviling our politics, and inflicting great hurt, for years. National policy won't change much until a pro-choice president is elected.
In the meantime, the best bastion of women's rights, strangely enough, will be states' rights.
Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist.