The American Bar Association has endorsed abortion rights, putting it at odds with the White House and clearing the way for the nation's biggest lawyers group to join the debate on abortion legislation.

The ABA's policymaking House of Delegates approved 276-168 a resolution opposing state and federal restrictions on the right to an abortion. In the two years before Tuesday's vote, the ABA had been neutral on the issue.The policy change allows the 370,000-member ABA to take part in court cases and testify on legislation, including a bill in Congress that would write into law the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade ruling establishing the right to abortion.

The Bush administration opposed the change. Attorney General William P. Barr warned in a letter last week that by endorsing the right to an abortion the ABA would "endanger the perception that it is an impartial and objective professional organization."

ABA President Talbot D'Alemberte and others argued that the ABA couldn't retain its credibility - particularly among the rising number of women lawyers - if it remained mute on one of the leading legal issues of the day.

Women now make up 23 percent of ABA members and about 45 percent of the nation's law students.

"This vote is going to cause women to join the ABA who never would have joined it before," said Drucilla Ramey, executive director of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

But John Curtin, a former ABA president from Boston, warned that the resolution will "increase the polarization in our society, our profession and our association."

The ABA, which represents half the nation's lawyers, passed a similar resolution in 1990 but repealed it six months later.

Tuesday's vote came at a time of worsening relations between the ABA and the Bush administration, which have clashed on proposals to limit damages awarded in lawsuits and to restrict criminal defendants' rights.

Vice President Dan Quayle has carried on a running battle with the association since his speech last year at the ABA convention in Atlanta blaming an overabundance of lawyers for the nation's economic woes.