Is Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.N. ambassador and former Democrat, about to become the former darling of the Republican right wing?

Well, don't be surprised if it happens. Kirkpatrick has committed what may be the right wing's version of unpardonable sin. She has admitted harboring mixed feelings on the question of abortion.

Her interviewer, John Lofton of The Washington Times, has no patience with mixed feelings, and, in their long interview, pressed her hard to own up to liberal heresy. "I've read that you are so-called 'pro-choice,' that you are against a constitutional amendment to protect the life of the unborn," he said. "True?"

Not true, said Kirkpatrick in a response that, while it will find no place in any dogmatic treatise, may describe how a lot of us feel. "My position on abortion is very much the traditional Protestant position," she said. "Basically, I believe abortion is always tragic, always to be avoided. But it is not invariably the worst possible evil in every situation.

"I would not call myself pro-choice, however, because pro- choice is the term associated today with readily available abortion and casual abortion counseling -- really almost use of abortion as a form of contraception and family planning. And I think that is abominable and appalling on all grounds."

That, I suspect, is close to the majority position in America, despite the attempts by advocates to push us toward one pole or another.

"Pro-choice," to the extent that it evokes the image Kirkpatrick attributes to it, and "right-to-life," to the degree that it means no abortion under any circumstance, both make most of us uncomfortable.

And yet the extremists on both sides claim not to understand what our discomfort is about, refusing to regard themselves as extremists at all but as people with the courage to defend a reasoned and reasonable position: A woman either has an absolute right to control her body or she doesn't. A pre-born baby is either absolutely a human being with a right to be born or it isn't.

What Kirkpatrick was saying, in response to a tightening noose of questions, was that sometimes the absolutist positions don't work, that there are cases where deeply held values conflict with each other.

Will such a view make her right-wing admirers write her off as hoplessly liberal? Maybe. But it puts her squarely in the middle of public opinion. A Newsweek poll reported earlier this year shows 55 percent of all Americans favoring the availability of abortion at least under certain cirsumstances. The rest split evenly between abortion on demand and complete prohibition.

And even that, I suspect, overstates the extent of the polarization. I doubt that very many of the abortion-on-demand advocates really support late-term, day-before-delivery abortion. I don't see how anybody could who wouldn't also support infanticide. I'm looking now at a recent news report of the arraignment of a 22-year-old Kansas woman on first- degree murder charges for the strangulation death of her newborn child. Is anybody comfortable saying it would have been all right if she had done the killing a few days earlier?

I also doubt that very many of those identified as right-to- lifers in the Newsweek poll are so absolutist as to deny an abortion to another woman recently in the news: this one a severely brain-diseased 75-pound woman, unable to communicate for over a year, who was raped in a California convalescent home.

Those of us squirming in the middle might buy Kirkpatrick's analogy of abortion to war: both conflict with her "very deep respect" for life, and both should be avoided except in the most extreme circumstances. "But I do not think, necessarily, there should be an absolute prohibition. I am not a pacifist."