THE HEAT IS back on President Bill Clinton after the leader of an abortion-rights lobbying group admitted he had lied about the prevalence of the late-term pregnancy procedure known as partial-birth abortion.

Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, a lobbying group in Alexandria, Va., told American Medical News that he “lied though [his] teeth” when he said earlier that doctors performed the “partial birth” procedure no more than 450 times a year. Fitzsimmons's group represents 200 abortion clinics, and his admission cast doubt on the accuracy and sincerity of other abortion-rights groups' claims. He estimated the actual number of partial birth abortions each year at up to 5,000 and said that in the vast majority of cases they were performed on healthy women.

Both Houses of Congress passed a bill last year to ban the procedure at any time except to save a woman's life. But Clinton vetoed the bill, claiming he wanted an exception for a woman's health. He called partial birth abortion “a potentially life-saving, certainly health-saving” operation for a “small but extremely vulnerable group of women,” which he estimated to number “a few hundred” a year.

The House of Representatives voted to override the veto, but the Senate vote was nine votes short of a pro-life victory. While pro-life politicians vowed to reintroduce the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 1997 months ago, Fitzsimmons's recent remarks have elevated the debate to a new level and put more pressure on Clinton and his pro-abortion allies.

Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.) and 165 co-sponsors introduced the bill March 5 in the House. The bill's sponsors did not change any of the wording from the 1996 bill. The House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution and the Senate Judiciary Committee were scheduled to hold a joint hearing March 11 on “Partial-Birth Abortion: The Truth.”

Helen Alvare, an official at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities and Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) will probably testify, along with officials from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Abortion Federation and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Predictably, pro-choice groups have failed to give up the fight to have partial-birth abortion remain legal.

The joint hearing should “correct false statements and … clarify resulting misconceptions about the procedure,” said a March 4 letter to potential witnesses signed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Henry Hyde (RIll.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The House was expected to vote on the bill on or about March 20. Because of the loss of some pro-life House seats in the 1996 election, the NRLC expects that it will be very close on whether the bill will get the two-thirds vote necessary to override President Clinton's anticipated veto.

Physicians perform partial-birth abortion on some fetuses after 20 weeks of gestation. The procedure involves dilating the cervix, pulling the baby partially into the birth canal feet-first and then thrusting surgical scissors into the base of the baby's head. After the abortionist sucks the infant's brains out, he collapses the skull and delivers the dead child.

The especially-grisly nature of partial-birth abortion stunned the majority of Americans who found out about it. But many Americans still do not know about the procedure, and Sen. Bob Dole did not make abortion a major issue in the 1996 presidential campaign.

Fitzsimmons said that he had lied about the number of partial-birth abortions, and he added that the vast majority of these abortions are performed in the second trimester on healthy unborn babies and healthy mothers, not in cases of danger to the mother's life or severe fetal abnormalities, as he earlier had claimed.

”The abortion rights folks know it, the anti-abortion folks know it, and so, probably, does everyone else,” said Fitzsimmons, in remarks that appeared in the March 3 issue of American Medical News, published by the American Medical Association. In an unaired interview with ABC's Nightline, Fitzsimmons “just went out there and spouted the party line,” about the procedure, he admitted in a Feb. 28 interview with Knight-Ridder news service.

Fitzsimmons said that he had lied about the number of partial-birth abortions, and he added that the vast majority of these abortions are performed in the second trimester on healthy unborn babies and healthy mothers.

Pro-life advocates responded to Fitzsimmons's admission with their own contention: that Americans should call into question the pro-abortion move-ment's credibility.

In 1996, Dr. Martin Haskell of Ohio, who has performed over 1,000 partial-birth abortions, said that about 80 percent of his patients had no medical reason. His admissions seemed to cast doubt on the abortion proponents'figures.

Nancy Valko, a registered nurse in St. Louis who follows medical ethics issues, wrote in a widely-circulated electronic-mail message that “if any other group was proved to have intentionally lied, the media would then view any of their pronouncements with a jaundiced eye: ‘how can we believe anything they say?’”

The New York Times and The Washington Post, both of which normally support abortion rights, parted ways on the partial-birth abortion issue recently. The Times said in an editorial that a great majority of partial-birth abortions are done before 24 weeks of gestation, “before the fetus is viable outside the womb.”

”The less-than-honest quality of the debate has been disheartening. But the squabbling over numbers should not obscure the principal at stake. Aban on the procedure is still an unacceptable political invasion of private medical decisions and an attempt to limit access to abortion.”

The Post, meanwhile, in a March 4 editorial, predicted that Congress will pass the 1997 bill against partial-birth abortions and said that “this time, Mr. Clinton will be hard-pressed to justify the veto on the basis of the misinformation on which he rested his case last time.”

Media Matters, a PBS media-criticism show, said in its January edition that “reporters tended to accept as true the assertions of the abortion-rights side, despite evidence calling into question their claims,” from the time the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act debuted in June 1995, through the time when Congress voted on Clinton's veto in September 1996.

National Right to Life's Johnson warned that Clinton has been ambiguous in recent weeks. Clinton stated in a Dec. 13 press conference that he would sign a bill to ban partial-birth abortions if an exception were added to cover “serious” health-related circumstances. “But on other ‘channels,’ so to speak, President Clinton has firmly communicated a very different position: that he will sign the bill only if it is also drastically changed so that it is limited to the third trimester,” wrote Johnson on his organization's worldwide web site.

If Clinton rejects the second partial-birth abortion bill, it will put pressure on liberal senators to override his veto. Part of this pressure, meanwhile, will depend on the extent to which the media covers the issue and the recent controversy. If the partial-birth abortion ban becomes law, it would be the first limitation on abortion since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision established abortion as a legal medical practice throughout the country.

William Murray is based in Kensington, Md.