THE SHIFTING composition of the Supreme Court, by focusing attention on the future of abortion rights, has shoved the issue front and center in Virginia's gubernatorial race for the first time in 16 years. That has made things uncomfortable for both major-party candidates, Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Republican former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, who, in their contrasting ways, have each sought to soften their position with carefully crafted wording. Of the two, Mr. Kilgore is by far the more egregious straddler. While wrapping himself in the pro-life banner, he ducks the crucial issue of whether he would favor outlawing abortion.

That is not a wildly speculative question, as he has disingenuously insisted. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that upheld a woman's right to abortion, is the target of concerted efforts by social conservatives who want to reverse it. Depending on changes in the court's composition, the justices could give the states considerably more latitude to regulate abortion, which could in turn prompt some states to enact laws that would test the premise of Roe. A future court might overturn it, which would put the issue squarely in the hands of state lawmakers. Candidates for governor should state whether they would sign legislation that would end three decades of abortion rights.

But Mr. Kilgore, though resolutely against abortion, won't go there; he dismissed Tim Russert's question on the subject at a candidates' debate last month as "hypothetical"; he then immediately answered an equally hypothetical question on taxes. No doubt he knows that at least a sixth, and possibly a great deal more, of American women have had abortions, and that a huge majority of Americans, no matter their qualms about abortion, oppose overturning Roe v. Wade.

So Mr. Kilgore is left with an incoherent position: On the one hand he opposes abortion, except if a pregnancy threatens a mother's life or in the case of rape or incest -- providing the woman reports the crime to the police within a week. And he has courted pro-life groups that are determined to outlaw abortion. On the other hand he insists he is "not going to do anything to criminalize women" who have abortions, while refusing to take a position on legislation to ban the procedure. It doesn't add up to an honest stance.

Mr. Kaine, a practicing Catholic, also casts himself as a pro-life candidate; like Mr. Kilgore, he says he is morally opposed to abortion. He has backed restrictions on it (including parental consent), supports the teaching of sexual abstinence in schools to curtail teen pregnancy and favors promoting adoption as an alternative for women facing unwanted pregnancies. But on the bottom-line issue, Mr. Kaine is clear: He would veto legislation to ban abortion. You can argue that Mr. Kaine's position is inconsistent. But unlike his opponent, at least he has taken a position.

This is one in a series of editorials on issues in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Others can be found at