ON MARCH 13, Jeff and Ellen Fleisher of Herndon met with Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton. The Fleishers wanted to explain something to Dalton. They wanted to tell him about Tay-Sachs disease and about their 19-month-old son Justin. They wanted to tell Dalton about indescribable human suffering, hoping they could persuade him to use the power of his office to prevent it, rather than increase it. They were wrong.

Less than two weeks later, Dalton vetoed a bill that would have allowed state Medicaid funds to be used to finance abortions for women who are carrying grossly abnormal fetuses.At the same time, he vetoed legislation that would have allowed Medicaid to pay for abortions of women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest. The General Assembly doesn't have the votes to override Dalton's vetoes.

Dalton's actions have made him a moral hero in the eyes of his buddy, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who has dispatched a Moral Majority from letter that members of his flock can sign and send to the governor. "The people of Virginia, born and unborn, owe you a great debt for the leadership you have given to the Commonwealth these last four years," says the letter. "You have stood up to special interest groups which have attempted to undermine our traditional moral values by requiring taxpayers to pay for abortions."

As a result of Dalton's leadership, the taxpayers of Virginia won't have to pay for an estimated 45 abortions a year -- 10 for women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest and 35 who are carrying grossly deformed fetuses. There will, of course, be a certain inconvenience and perhaps even pain as a result of these pregancies but we are, let us not forget, talking about a small number of women who are very poor. No match for the Moral Majority in Virginia.

The Fleishers, in their way, tried to tell Dalton something about leadership. They told him that Tay-Sachs is a heartbreaking genetic horror, something no one should be forced to go through. They told him what they told the state House and Senate. They told him what happened to Justin, a baby who developed normally for four months and then began an irreversible deterioration that will end in his death by the age of four. They told about Justin's life:

"Justin never sat up, pulled himself up, crawled, walked or talked . . . . He is a beautiful child who does not even know his own parents. He is now totally blind. He has an extremely hard time eating. He can eat only strained baby food, and feedings take between one and two hours. He now requires tube feeding and recently had a gastrostomy performed to implant the tube surgically in his stomach. His sucking reflex is failing, and a bottle sometimes takes over an hour . . . . He is becoming paralyzed -- he rarely moves his arms and legs, and when he does, it is with extreme difficulty . . . .

"He is now institutionalized, as we can no longer meet his needs at home. He requires 24-hour care and feedings around the clock. Our son has gone from a delightful infant into a totally dependent child. He has crying spells lasting two to three hours and is inconsolable during these periods. He can no longer be entertained. He enjoys no toys and can no longer see his cradle gym or mobiles for entertainment. He no longer sees our faces for comfort or reassurance.

"The emotional trauma we suffer is beyond comprehension . . . . Knowing that we could have spared our son and ourselves of this tragedy only adds to our grief, frustration and guilt."

Ellen and Jeff Fleisher have a one-in-four chance of having another Tay-Sachs child. She is now pregnant again and will have amniocentesis done next week to see if she is carrying another afflicted fetus. If she is, she will have an abortion. Ellen Fleisher is not a Medicaid recipient.

Del. Samuel Glasscock of Suffolk was the chief sponsor of the two bills to extend Medicaid coverage to cases of rape, incest and gross fetal abnormality, and he has promised to reintroduce his bills next year. Glasscock doesn't seem spooked by the Moral Majority. "I feel so strongly about these measures that political consequences are very secondary," he said. He knows that the people involved don't, as he says, "have a great deal of political clout. But I've got to believe the hurt is just as real and the heartbreak is just as enormous. They are people who do need our assistance."

They are people the Fleishers tried to help, and they are the people that Denny and Donna Edwards of Virginia Beach tried to help. The Edwardses, a Navy couple denied an abortion by restrictive language in the Defense Department budget, had an anencephalic child several years ago -- a child born without a brain. They, too, met with Dalton. Donna Edwards, says Glasscock, broke down. Denny Edwards told Dalton the baby only lived 45 minutes and that later their daughter asked her mother whether the baby's brain had been found yet. For a long time, the daughter would have nothing to do with her mother, thinking somehow that the mother was responsible for what had happened The Edwardses and the Fleishers know something about human suffering and they tried to tell Gov. Dalton about it.

Maybe he listened that day last month. But he didn't hear.