A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the midterm elections.
Abortion rights, the stepchild issue of campaigns past, became a stepping stone to elected office. While once candidates wanted the whole subject to simply go away, in 1994 it was a linchpin of both gubernatorial and congressional campaigns, for those who had previously soft-pedaled the incendiary issue -- and those who had once shown little or no support for legal abortion at all.
As recently as 10 years ago, recalls Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion Rights Action League, candidates eschewed the league's endorsement or asked it to keep its support low-key.
"The change this year was very noticeable," she said. "We had people upset that I couldn't come and campaign for them."
"They understand that the majority of voters are pro-choice," said Mary Dent Crisp, chair of the Republican Coalition for Choice and a former co-chair of the Republican National Committee.
"They've been advised by their handlers that that is the way to go."
If that sounds like a depressingly utilitarian way to view one of the great moral issues of our times, that's because it sometimes is.
While abortion-rights activists have found cheering the willingness by so many to openly support legal abortion, they're also suspicious of the sincerity of some of that support. Ms. Michelman traveled around the country with a list of so-called Great Pretenders, pro-choice wannabes with more than a suggestion of political expediency about them.
In New York State George Pataki went out of his way to position himself as pro-choice during the gubernatorial race.
Yet his voting record in the state legislature had garnered a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition and led a state organization opposed to legal abortion to conclude that Mr. Pataki had "a pro-life voting record."
In Massachusetts Mitt Romney insisted that he had favored legal abortion for more than two decades.
Yet one woman, in an agonized first-person essay in a Mormon women's newspaper, described how her bishop, whom she did not name, had visited her in the hospital in 1982 as she awaited a therapeutic abortion and tried to persuade her not to go ahead, although doctors had told her the pregnancy, her sixth, could endanger her life.
"I got judgment, criticism, prejudicial advice and rejection," she wrote of the encounter. Friends of the woman say that that bishop was Mr. Romney.
Even Jeb Bush, who opposes legal abortion, seemed to want to have it a bit both ways when he debated Lawton Chiles during the Florida gubernatorial race.
While he described himself as "pro-life," supporting abortion only in cases of rape, incest and a threat to the life of the mother, he added: "I also believe that it's not going to change. The Supreme Court has ruled emphatically."
The most forthright public stand on abortion rights during this midterm election period came, tellingly, from a politician who wasn't running.
Christie Whitman, the governor of New Jersey, jumped into the debate by decrying the anti-abortion plank in the Republican Party platform.
While various and sundry Republicans proclaimed themselves pro-choice during state races, the alliance of the party with the religious right has moderates fearful that in 1996 opposition to legal abortion will once again be the official party stance.
Governor Whitman opined that the anti-abortion plank should come out of the platform, that it was not only bad for the Republican Party but also wrong on principle. She did not whiffle or waffle, put her position off on the Supreme Court or wax politic about waiting periods.
"I don't believe this is a political issue," she said on the television talk show "Equal Time" when she was challenged by a caller. "It's a very personal decision, to be made by a woman and her physician, and that's where the decision ought to lie."
At no time has that been clearer than in the last several months, when pretenders have embraced this most personal of decisions for the sake of political gain.
For those on both sides who care passionately about this issue, who consider it a matter of conscience and liberty, it is deeply dispiriting to see it played as a trump card by those who find their ethical compass in focus groups and poll results.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.