IT WAS A FACE you would not expect. It was a face off a cameo, something soft and sweet and banked on both sides with blond hair. It was the face of a 14 or 15-year-old girl and she was in the room with maybe two or three others like her and they were sort of leaning back, looking at me look at them, none of them reaching for the cookies that had been set out, none of them saying anything, all of them covered with a blanket for the chill that comes after an abortion.

They were in the lounge area of an abortion clinic and they had all said it was all right with them if I came in. I looked at them only briefly, thinking somehow that I was invading their privacy, and then we toured the labs and walked out again. Back in the administration area, it was better. Back in the administration area, it was again an intellectual issue.

This is the place where the protesters come. This is the place where in the last year they have come on Saturdays and shouldered their way past the people who work here and barged into the clinic and have occasionally confronted patients and where they have asked rather basic questions like, "Did you know you are taking a life?" They asked this question of a woman who had come to the clinic for a PAP test, but you get the point anyway.

The place is a three-story brick building hard by a Gino's and maybe a mile or so from a dismal shopping center. It is in Fairfax County and the name of the clinic is the Northen Virginia Women's Medical Center, and the figure to bear in mind is that 86 percent of its patients come from this county. Since 1973, it has performed 16,000 abortions.

It was Sharon McCann who got me here. She called a while back to tell me about the protesters and the more she talked the more interested I got. How interesting, I said. How fascinating. Here they were, these mostly conservative people, here they were doing what my kind of people did during the Vietnam war. How could you condemn? How could you criticize? What they were saying, after all, is that they were under a moral compulsion to come to a place where they said life was being taken and do something about it. Who could argue with that and who could say it was all about different from marching down to the Army depot in your hometown and hassling the MP's, and maybe the bravest or the craziest among you sitting down - sitting down and linking arms and singing something on the way to jail.

McCann is 30, and she knew right off what I meant. She could see it also and she could understand. While she had some other things to say, some things about the patients and their rights, I brushing right by that on my way to resolving this intellectual dilemma. So for a while I wrote nothing but the person who did write an article for The Washington Post got the Vietnam war right into the first paragraph of the piece - right where it belonged. Even later, a guy called and he, too, had the same problem I did. He was driving by an abortion clinic with his girl friend and she gave the pickets the finger. He was appalled, he said. That's us out there, he said. They're doing what we used to do.

All this is true. There are similarities but the fact of the matter is that in Fairfax County, Virginia, the other shoe never drops. In Fairfax, the rules of this game have been changed. In Fairfax, you cannot open a dirty bookshop without being arrested on the spot. But at least five times in the last year, protesters have invaded the clinic, trespassed and done God-knows-what-else and not a one of them has been found guilty in a Fairfax County court. In Fairfax, the judges always manage to try abortion instead of the trespassers, and always abortion is found guilty.

This is the sort of thing we talk about in McCann's office. We are joined by her boss, Robert Atchley, a co-owner of the clinic, and we continue to talk about the civil rights of the protesters and the rights of the clinic and then I say I would like to see the clinic it self. McCann gets up and leaves the room so she can clear the clinic of patien's but when she comes she says that the women will stay.

We go down the hall and I have my notebook out and I am taking notes, liiking for detail, wondering what the hallway must look like when the protesters are in the place, when suddenly the swings open and I see that face. It stops me. It stops me because it is not until now that I realize that this is not a dispute between adults, but between adults and kids. They are younger than you would expect and, yes, innocent. One of them looks at me and gives me an awkward smile and I look away.

We walk through the place, around the back where the labs are located, and then back into the room with the girls. I notice the cookies and then a poster on the wall about sex. It says you don't have to have sex unless you want to, and that even if you do have sex you don't have to do what you don't want to do, and then, finally, something about how your body is your own. Then we walked back to the office and then this was no longer an issue just about moral compunctions and constitutional rights and that sort of thing, but something else as well.

It's about scared kids.