AT FIRST glance there is something terribly confusing about what is going on in the life of Patrick F. Kelly, a federal judge in Wichita, Kan., who may be wondering why he didn't go to dental school.
Kelly has forbidden members of Operation Rescue, the anti-abortion search-and-destroy group, to block access to abortion clinics in town.
In return, his jurisprudence has been attacked by his own government and his life has been threatened. One man reportedly left a message on the judge's home answering machine, describing how his body would be dismembered after he was killed.
Now let me get this straight: It's wrong to destroy an embryo, but it's OK to kill a full-grown federal judge.
Kelly hasn't had much to do with the abortion issue in his 11 years on the federal bench, but he's getting a fast and dirty education since Operation Rescue decided to make Wichita a high-profile battleground.
And the judge is discovering an essential truth of the movement: Things are not always what they seem. Getting a death threat from a person who pretends a keen interest in the right to life is the least of the contradictions.
The intervention in this matter by the Justice Department is described by officials as simply a dispute over the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which allows federal courts to protect a class of people from conspiracies to violate their civil rights.
Kelly relied on that law when he sent in federal marshals to safeguard entrances at the clinics. He also promised to jail anyone who defied his order, including the governor.
Operation Rescue lawyers argued that the 1871 act doesn't apply, and the Justice Department supported them in an amicus brief. Amicus means friend, and that's exactly what Justice is being to the anti-abortion folks, talking jurisdictional disputes and playing politics.
President Bush continues to court the right-to-life vote, and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who turned in his resignation Friday, is expected to announce that he is running for the Senate in Pennsylvania.
Most of what we need to know about Justice Department intervention in this case is contained in election contests, not legal papers.
So many men, so little candor. Randall Terry, who runs Operation Rescue, has been most honest when he has talked about the proper subservient role of women in society. His compatriots wear tiny fetus feet lapel pins.
What some of them seem to oppose is not abortion, but the rise of individualism and the changing roles of women. When they talk about innocent life, they are talking about what they see as a more innocent time, when the same moral strictures applied to everyone, when gay people were in the closet, sex resulted in conception and women stayed home.
In her book "Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood," the sociologist Kristin Luker describes the abortion battle as a referendum, a conflict between those who think raising children is one part of a woman's life, freely chosen, and those who think it is the center of a woman's life, essential destiny.
Supporters of legal abortion often say that their opponents are not interested in women, only the unborn. But some of those opponents are keenly interested in maintaining traditional roles, in pushing back the tide of change.
Like all other abortion battles, at base the one in Wichita is about how we live now. It's hard to see how the man who threatens to cut Kelly into little pieces is choosing life. Instead I would imagine that he is enraged that others are choosing a life of which he does not approve.
The administration has chosen to support that sort of rage, and thousands of protesters are throwing one American town into a tumult to vent it. The Justice Department sent them a message; while the entrances to the clinics cleared in the wake of Kelly's order, the demonstrators were soon back, trying their best to inhibit women from exercising a clear constitutional right.
It seems contradictory that liberals are demanding law and order and conservatives are justifying disruptive protests. But that is no more contradictory than the rest of this sorry episode, in which the so-called Department of Justice sides with lawbreakers, and those who march beneath banners that say "Choose Life" deny others their choice and disrupt thousands of lives.