The way Charles Dean tells it, he simply decided one day he could not sit silently while people were killing babies.

"I went to church one Sunday and the priest was talking about [abortion], which I wasn't very conversant on," Dean said. The priest suggested the congregation sign an antiabortion petition aimed at the Virginia legislature," . . . and I left the church that morning without any more thought of signing that petition than flying to the moon."

But the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion -- and the jump in the number of abortions to more than 1 million a year -- quickly convinced Dean he was out of touch with what was going on in the country and had to get involved.

Today, that involvement has 42-year-old Charles Dean, a prosperous, Mercedes-driving Norfolk businessman, spending half his waking hours as the head of a zealous campaign to stop the nation's first "test-tube baby" clinic, located in Norfolk.

The clinic, which has accepted 35 childless couples from about 3,000 applicants to be the first in the United States to try to conceive with pioneering medical help, is deeply opposed by Dean, his wife Mary, and a group of 2,000 conservative churchgoers in the area which Dean heads.

They view the project at tiny Eastern Virginia Medical School here as the "opening wedge," the first step down the "slippery slope" at the bottom of which lies a Brave New World of human genetic engineering and master races.

"I think it's morally unconscionable to use prospective children as human guinea pigs to satisfy the admittedly great desire of a woman to have a baby," said Dean during a recent series of lengthy interviews.

The couples, desperate to have children, has watched with horrified fascination as Dean's local chapter of the Virginia Society for Human Life tries to stop the clinic's project in its tracks.

The opponenets efforts include a newspaper letter-writing campaign, an appeal to Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman to seek an injunction against the clinic, and the possibility of a lawsuit, all based on three main objections:

That the human experiments have not been preceded by what the Deans and their followers views as a significant amount of animal research.

That any fertilized female ovum, or eggs, that is not growing properly will be thrown away rather than implanted in the woman's body, an action the Deans view as killing a baby.

That women in the program will be given the option of aborting if, during pregnancy, it is found that the fetus they are carrying is mentally or physically deformed.

"This is a process that has not been tested on subhuman primates, which is an absolute must," said Dean. "And when you have data which suggest that half of the human beings who are created by the process are, in fact, defective, it's just unconscionable to proceed with that kind of process."

The crusade has pitted Dean, a Georgetown University graduate, against much of Norfolk's medical establishment, an unusual position for the co-owner of a major East Coast lumber importing firm and an establishment figure himself.

Dean's roots are as deep in the Norfolk community as those of the man he sees as his chief opponent, Dr. Mason Andrews, chairman of the obstetrics-gynecology department of Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Andrews not only heads the department overseeing the "in vitro" fertilization project, he is also vice mayor of Norfolk, the founder of the medical school, and a widely respected local physician who probably delivered at birth many of those now opposing him.

"I think our objections were originally thought to be emanating from some local yokels, sort of flag-waving right-to-lifers," said Dean. "You see, Mason Andrews is a prominenet doctor and his brother is a prominent doctor and their father before them was a prominent doctor, the so-called blue [blood] society doctor back in the '30s.

"When you add that all up, you see the kind of political morass we're operating in."

Andrews, meanwhile, who led the drive to win approval of the project by local and state officials, claims to be frankly puzzled by the zeal and tactics of Dean and his troops.

"I find it confusing to be debating in a court where there are no rules of evidence or due process," andrews said. "This is anarchy, where it's a question of who can shout the loudest and get access to the media.

"The real judgement society has to make," he said, "is when something that's objectionable to a segment of society should be kept from the rest of society."

Besides Andrews, the Deans have often had to deal with the allegation from others that they have never known what it's like to be single and pregnant, or pregnant and carrying a retarded child.

Their answer, Dean said, is that Mary Dean was exposed to German measles during the first 12 weeks of the pregnancies when she was carrying two of their four sons. She was told by her obstetrician the disease could cause retardation and deafness in the unborn child -- and that she should consider a therapeutic abortion.

"That's when you really start to think about what it means," Mary Dean said. "When you're faced with the possibility, you have to stop and think about what it is. Obviously, coming from the background that we're coming from we may have thought about it a little longer and harder, and at that point abortion was not that socially acceptable."

They both decided that retarded sons would be better than no sons -- that they could not participate in what they saw as the taking of innocent life. Their children were born without birth defeats.

Now, with the nation's first test-tube baby clinic in Dean's own backyard, he finds himself studying everything he can find on "in vitro" fertilization. He has flown as far as Canada for symposia on the subject, while he continues to throw up every obstacle he can think of to stop the project at Eastern Virginia.

As for his slow state as an activist, Dean says he simply "couldn't believe that people actually kill another human being.

"It's so far out of my consciousness that a woman who has a baby within her could actually kill that baby that it's almost incomprehensible."