For readers who might be unfamiliar with Ronald Reagan as an author, the editors of the Human Life Review identify him as "the fortieth President of the United States." The president's article, "Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation," appears in the current issue of the quarterly, a publication that devotes a fair portion of its pages to anti-abortion axgrinders and browbeaters.

Reagan's piece is different. It makes the case--in direct, unornamental prose--that abortion is an issue of power and powerlessness. "We are talking about two lives--the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child," Reagan writes. Arguing that abortion is not merely a personal decision, the president correctly centers the issue: fetal life has "a God-given right to be protected by the law--the same right we have. . . . It is not for us to decide who is worthy to live and who is not."

Reagan's essay is needed for the debate. Until now, he has not gone much beyond code words fit for posters, nor has he used any forum except the occasional paragraph in a speech or the bewrenched reply to a press conference question. That he speaks out now suggests a move toward authentic leadership on a question that haunts the national mind no matter which side is taken. Reagan refers to the assessment of Mother Teresa, that "the greatest misery of our time is the generalized abortion of children."

With 15 million lives stopped by legal abortion in the United States since 1973, Reagan's effort to rally the country against abortion could help prevent the devastation of millions of deaths in the decade to come.

There is a context, certainly, to Reagan's article. In the past month, he has been reestablishing his ties with such core support groups as the National Rifle Association. He sang sweet notes to Jackie Presser, the new Teamsters president, and put him on the guest list for an upcoming White House banquet. His anti-abortion piece may well be more preaching-to-the-choir politics designed to keep pro-life groups pro- Reagan.

Whatever the motivation or maneuvering, Reagan narrows to a fine line-- but a visible, uncrossable line--the reality that "the humanity of the unborn child" should not be ended by violence. It is usually at this point that anti-abortionists are tempted to become finger-wavers against pro-abortion "baby-killers."

Instead of shouting-match arguments that have long travestied the discussion, Reagan illuminates one of the least recognized strengths of the pro-life movement: that its members are not just compulsive one-noters. He mentions such groups as Sav-a-Life in Dallas and the House of His Creation in Coatesville, Pa., that provide care for women who might otherwise be left with no alternative to abortion.

Groups like this have always been a powerful force within the pro-life movement, though they receive a fraction of the publicity given by the media to abortion clinics. The media have not much exerted themselves either in reporting that pro-life groups tend to attract people whose humanitarianism is broad. In "Rachel Weeping," James Burtchaell tells of the Indiana Right- to-Life chapter. In 1980, a survey was made of the 229 members who came to the group's regional convention. Sixty- seven were involved in voter registration, 81 distributed free food and clothing, 116 were volunteers in neighborhood organizations like scouting or meals on wheels, 176 were teachers' aides or tutors in schools, 47 had taken pregnant women, refugees or foster children into their homes.

This isn't a portrait of reactionaries who think that community service means firebombing the local abortion clinic. The Indiana group, as well as others like it across the country, draws citizens whose personal service to others is anything but narrowly focused on opposition to abortion.

This fact also belies the stereotype that only the right wing is active on this issue. Three years ago, the Chicago Tribune carried a story about Feminists for Life, a group that at the time was backing both the Equal Rights Amendment and the Human Life Amendment. The organization's president was quoted: "Feminism grew out of the anger of women who did not want their value to be determined by men. How can we turn around and arbitrarily devalue the fetus? How can I support a Nestl,e boycott and turn around and support the destruction of life in utero?"

Reagan is not pro-life on other issues: disarmament, gun control, food programs. On the sanctity of unborn life, though, he is. The law of averages might be at work: eventually there had to be some issue he was right about. To the country's benefit, Reagan picked well to be morally sound on this one.