SEPTEMBER 19, 1994

Abortion. No word ignites an argument so quickly. No issue resists compromise so adamantly. Those harsh lessons, learned long ago by the American Congress, had to be relearned by the United Nations population conference meeting in Cairo. For days, delegates from 182 countries threshed and winnowed the abortion language in one small paragraph, virtually ignoring the rest of a 113-page document setting forth a 20-year plan for world population control. Perhaps that was inevitable, since abortion touches on three of the most contentious subjects in human discourse: religion, sex and politics.

In Cairo, as in Congress, the antiabortion side started from a religious viewpoint. On Capitol Hill, Roman Catholics joined with fundamentalist Protestants; at the U.N. conference, Catholics and conservative Muslims worked together. But their baseline in both forums was the same: Abortion is a moral evil. That mind-set has led to demonstrations, even murder, at American abortion clinics. In Cairo, it moved some countries to oppose any reference to the idea of ``legal abortion.'' Argued a delegate from Guatemala: ``Legal abortion'' is a contradiction in terms, the equivalent of saying ``legal robbery.''

Forces favoring legalized abortion are motivated at least in part by sex. Access to abortion services has a practical payoff: enhancing the ability of women to manage their fertility. But to many feminists, it is also a powerful symbol of a much larger issue: Controlling their bodies means controlling their future. ``How come we don't finally stand up and say we're not talking about abortion?'' asks Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. ``We're talking about the role of women in church and state.''

That is why the abortion issue is so volatile. The discussion is only partly about medicine, or even theology. It is also about power between the sexes, about changing gender roles, about the nature of families. And Dan Quayle's back-to-family-values speech in San Francisco, delivered just as the Cairo conference was erupting in disagreement, highlights the third leg of the abortion triad: politics. Around the world, conservative politicians like Quayle are playing on the real fears and anxieties generated by changing family structures and the collapse of traditional mores. They are being answered by feminists like Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who told the Cairo meeting that abortion foes are guilty of ``hypocrisy'' for condemning women to the suffering caused by ``illegal abortions and unwanted children.''

In Cairo, and on Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration has struggled to navigate between these extremes. The rough consensus it has managed to broker maintains that abortion should be legal but rare, available but not desirable, a last resort not a first option. But as Bill Clinton is painfully learning, consensus building is a high-risk occupation, particularly when religion, sex and politics are all involved.