WASHINGTON (AP) _ Henry Foster Jr., President Clinton's nominee for surgeon general, now says he performed 39 abortions during his 38-year career in medicine. Foster says he has no intention of quitting, and the White House mounted a drive to rescue his embattled nomination.

``I abhor abortions,'' the medical educator declared Wednesday night in an interview on ABC-TV's ``Nightline'' program taped in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

As Foster's prospects for Senate confirmation appeared to dim, he defended his participation in a study that used vaginal suppositories to induce early abortions as a way to train residents at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., ``how to manage the complications of abortion.''

He said the abortions were not induced specifically to create complications, ``but you cannot have a situation where you can predict who will or will not have complications.''

Pressed further on the purpose of the study, he said it was ``to determine the safety, the efficacy and the patient acceptability of this modality so patients might be able to avoid having mechanical procedures when they were done for medical reasons or any other reasons.''

The television interview marked the 61-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist's first appearance in public after five days under wraps and under fire since Clinton nominated him.

Clinton had hoped for a less contentious surgeon general than the fired Joycelyn Elders. Instead, Foster and the White House ignited a firestorm by giving varying accounts of how many abortions he performed.

Clinton has beaten a hasty retreat from other controversial nominees such as Zoe Baird and Lani Guinier, but he sent aides to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to assure Senate allies he intended to fight for Foster.

Clinton again called Foster ``a good man. ... I believe he should be confirmed and I believe he will.''

But some possible supporters suggested Senate confirmation was all but lost.

``There's nothing in the history of their deliberations that gives me great confidence at this point,'' said Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., a moderate Republican on the committee that will hold hearings on Foster.

``They should have taken the finest doctor they could find in the country, someone near retirement without any controversy,'' said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.

Foster complained to ``Nightline'' host Ted Koppel that ``everyone in the country has been defining Henry Foster except Henry Foster.''

``I have devoted my entire life to improving the lives of mothers, babies and their families,'' Foster said.

He launched into a rambling account of his education and career, including his efforts to discourage teen pregnancy in Nashville.

``I abhor abortions. I abhor war. To me abortion is failure,'' the graying Foster said.

In a written statement last Friday Foster said he had delivered 10,000 babies and performed ``fewer than a dozen'' abortions.

Prodded by Koppel on whether he had been dishonest or disingenuous with administration officials, Foster said he succumbed to pressure to give rough estimates without knowing the facts.

``I was asked had I done abortions. I said yes. The one I remembered most was a woman who had AIDS. That was essentially the end of that conversation,'' he said.

Later Clinton aides asked whether he had performed more than one abortion.

``I casually said yes,'' said Foster.

``They said, `A dozen?' I said, `Yes, perhaps a dozen, maybe less than a dozen,''' he related.

Three days of ``furiously'' reviewing patient records and operation logs at Meharry's Hubbard Hospital ``revealed that I was listed as the physician of record on 39 of those (abortion) cases in 38 years in practice and 22 years at Meharry,'' he said.

He defended the study of the abortion-inducing suppository, which terminated the pregnancies of 55 of 60 women.

``These were not patients I knew. They weren't my private patients. .... Many times I was not even in the country when these were done,'' he said of the abortions.

Foster said he had no intention of withdrawing.

``I'm a big fighter,'' he said. ``I'm going to go with the process all the way primarily because this is an opportunity for me to improve the care of the people in this nation.''

But even Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a staunch Clinton ally, said there was only ``a 50-50 chance of his nomination surviving.''

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the cardiac surgeon from Nashville, said Foster should not be judged on the basis of whether he performed abortions.

Frist, who opposes abortion, said it was common for OB-GYNs to perform the procedure. But Frist said he did not know whether he would vote for his fellow Tennessean.