WASHINGTON — IN THE 62 weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court put the abortion issue squarely back into politics, abortion rights forces and their opponents have essentially traded places.
People who believe abortion decisions should be made by women, the so-called pro-choice camp, have achieved a surprising amount of success in the political arena, where they had long seen themselves to be on exposed turf.
On the other hand, people who believe, often on religious and moral grounds, that such decisions should be regulated, the so-called pro-life camp, have increasingly found their viewpoints upheld by the courts, the very bodies that they had long seen as the enemy.
Surveys show that, with the possible exception of race relations, abortion remains the single most divisive issue in American politics. It will no doubt be considered anew as the Senate considers elevating Judge David H. Souter to the nation's highest judicial tribunal.
Now Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia has entered this highly charged arena, dropping his prior all-out, anti-abortion stand.
Conventional political wisdom holds that a Democratic candidate for president must espouse an abortion-rights position, just as a Republican hopeful must maintain a contrary view. Nunn's reversal is of interest -- not because it necessarily signals a 1992 presidential bid -- but because it reveals him to be a supremely pragmatic politician.
One sign of realism on Nunn's part is his recognition that the Supreme Court is apt to chart an increasingly conservative course on the abortion question.
And that means that Nunn and his colleagues may be obliged to weigh bona fide abortion legislation, instead of posturing behin vague efforts to amend the Constitution.
In recent letters to constituents, Nunn has written: "I do not believe that large segments of the American people and the medical profession will accept or obey a law making early-term abortions a criminal act after all those years. If criminal sanctions are legislated, the resulting turmoil would far surpass the failed experiment of Prohibition."
Voters must decide whether Nunn's pronouncement marks a flip-flop of the sort that has recently sent some politicians into involuntary retirement or whether he has taken a principled stand that will heighten his already considerable stature. But it is apparent that Nunn seeks to lower the political temperature on the abortion question.
He informs anti-abortion rights zealots that "the law can only accomplish so much, and with respect to abortion, I believe the only enforceable line the law can draw is to protect the unborn child when it is clear an independent life is involved."
At the same time, he tells opponents of anti-abortion laws: "I hope we have not reached the point in this country when anything that is not prohibited by law is considered morally and ethically acceptable."
Such a balanced stance is unlikely to endear Nunn to crusaders in either circle. But it might help the rest of us move on to other pressing concerns in making decisions at the ballot box.