I increasingly get the feeling that people are putting words in my mouth. Suddenly being in favor of "family" or "life" is supposed to mean having a swallow a whole series of things that I may not agree with at all.

"Pro-family" and "pro-life" have come to be code words appropriated by those apt to support state-mandated public prayer, oppose day care for children, and view wives as property of husbands. This kind of rhetoric recently moved Terri Wedoff, active Christian, mother of two, a national president of the Homemakers' Equal Rights Association to protest:

"Groups that prefer to identify themselves as 'pro-family' or aligned with the Bible must have a very small opinion of the family. . . . "It hardly matches Christ's example of selfless, sacrificial love. . . . Whatever happened to individual liberties?"

What indeed?

Nowhere has the claim to "pro-life" been taken more as the exclusive property of one group than on the issue of abortion. But if pro-life is anti-abortion, what is a woman who is anti-anti-abortion? Is she anti-life? That's the cruelest blow to a mother of all.

Most women feel privileged to take part in the process that produces a child. They know what it means to feel life. A pregnant woman who pats and coos at her growing belly does not regard the fetus inside as an inanimate thing, to be casually discarded or thrown away.

One typical woman I know who was forced to terminate a pregnancy found herself drinking abnormal quantities of milk, and refusing to take aspirin lest it harm the fetus -- even though she had an abortion scheduled for the next day. Every woman I know understands that the price for abortion is often a lifetime of lingering guilt: "Will I ever be able to have another child?"

"Pro-abortion" has no more meaning than "pro-hysterectomy" or "pro-mastectomy." It is an amputation either way.

A feminist friend of mine recently had her first baby -- a planned and joyous occasion. She was shocked and extremely upset at the reaction she got from one of her former friends. The woman not only told my friend it was "too bad" she had a boy, she also made it clear she thought it was acceptable to abort boy fetuses until a girl came along.

Does the fact that I favor abortion rights put me in that woman's camp?

About a month later, I was speaking with a nurse who said that many of the teen-agers who came to her hospital were using abortion as birth control. When I agreed that that was profoundly distrubing and tried to open a discussion, she cut it off with, "It's murder, you know."

Is that the only answer?

Abortion is an issue that cries for the most complex and controlled kind of public discussion. Instead, what we have is universal hysteria and unilateral moves.

The head of one of the country's largest hospitals in Cook County, Chicago, decided on his own to stop all abortions -- as if it were nobody's business but his own. Opponents of abortion bomb and picket abortion clinics -- even after the courts have deliberated that the right is protected by law. The media often blithely tout amniocentesis (pre-natal testing) as a magic means to weed out imperfect children -- without any hint of the moral implications involved.

It's all too easy to take sides on abortion. It's not so easy to find a middle ground. Women who are saddled both with a strong maternal conscience and a belief in personal rights find themselves standing between a rock and a hard place. They are as queasy about out-of-control abortion as they are about no abortion at all. Yet the battle to save the very right of abortion has made it impossible to begin to address the implications and abuses.

The politics of abortion have made it impossible to be both "pro-choice" and "pro-life."

Abortion -- at least for most people -- is not a yes or no question. It does, however, raise practical questions of the gravest concern. If we deny the right to abortion, for example, do we also deny the right to control contraception? Do we deny a woman's right to plan her family? To protect herself against the product of incest or rape? To protect sexual integrity and independence itself? Do laws against abortion mean that our virtually all-male government can legislate other medical protocol for women?

On the other hand, when we uphold the right to abortion, do we mean the right to abort a fetus after six months' gestration? After eight? After three? If it's acceptable to abort a fetus that suffers from a genetic abnormality, is it also acceptable to abort a fetus that "suffers" from the "wrong" sex?

Indeed, it's impossible for me to decide whether to call the fetus "who" or "that," largely because I'd have a different answer depending on whether I was talking about a two-week-"old" fertilized egg, or a 34-week-old full-formed unborn baby.

The question of when life begins is at least as complicated as the question of when it ends. And yet while the nation agonizes publicly over the case of Karen Quinlan, over when to "pull the plug," over whether a merciful death is more moral than an unwanted life, there are few parallel discussions on abortion.

Indeed, it is often the "pro-life" forces who vote against funds for prenatal care to first-time pregnant women and health care for all poor children under Medicaid -- almost guaranteeing that many of these infants are not only unwanted, but also physically and mentally unhealthy, unnurtured, uneducated, abused.

Where is pro-life's concern for quality of life?

Similarly, I was told of a kindergarten child who came home quite shaken recently when his teacher eliminated a baby chick from a newbord batch of chickens because it was "too weak and would probably not survive."

"Does everything," asked the boy, "that's sick or weak have to die?"

Surely it can be a merciful act to abort fetuses who suffer from serious abnormalities, or who would otherwise be born into family situations that would make their lives a living hell. But where do we draw the line? Is it also moral to abort fetuses who will grow to be children who are deaf or blind or crippled or mildly retarded? How mildly? And who decides? Is it possible to even contemplate weeding out "imperfect" members of society when we know that nobody's perfect? Least of all our families and ourselves?

Most people who are "pro-life" and perhaps even many who are "pro-choice" would say that these questions have simple answers. But by accepting a fundamental human question to a meaningless exchange of slogans -- to calling each other names.

Like euthanasia or genetic engineering, the issue of abortion addresses our most basic assumptions about the role of society and religion, about the definition of "life," about the right to dignity and self-determination and free will.

And yet, I had more deep discussions as a grade-schooler over whether I'd rather be "red than dead" than I have ever had on the subject of abortion.

Women feel particularly threatened by abortion restrictions because there are no comparable laws for men. A woman who gets pregnant by accident may be required by law to bear and raise that child alone -- regardless of the consequences for her child or herself. The man who impregnates that woman can merely walk out the door.

The call to unequivocally oppose or support all abortion is as empty as the call to "Love America or Leave it." Yet the fact that there are not easy answers does not preclude the necessity of searching for solutions.

It demands them.