DURING a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania last March, Senator Barack Obama was asked about teenagers and sexually transmitted diseases.
He replied that "the most important prevention is education," including "information about contraception." Then he added: "Look, I've got two daughters -- 9 years old and 6 years old. I'm going to teach them first of all about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby. I don't want them punished with an STD at the age of 16."
If Obama had deliberately set out to appall anti-abortion voters, he couldn't have uttered four words more jarring than "punished with a baby." The equation of any new child with punishment set teeth on edge, and Obama's campaign quickly issued a clarification. The candidate, a loving father of two, believes that "children are miracles," it said; he only meant to underscore the importance of reducing teen pregnancy. But Obama's unscripted words needed no clarifying. They tartly encapsulated the extreme position on "choice" he has staked out in his career.
What brings Obama's revealing turn of phrase to mind, of course, is the pregnancy of Governor Sarah Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter.
"Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned," Palin and her husband announced in a statement. "We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support. Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family."
Granted, Obama was engaging in a hypothetical speculation, while the Palins were dealing with a real-life family challenge. Still, what a contrast! To the Democratic nominee, a teenage daughter's unforeseen baby is a punishment to be prevented; to the Republican Veep-designee, it is a blessing to be embraced.
The polarity of the candidates' reactions would be arresting even if these incidents stood alone. But in both cases they reinforce the record each campaign brings to the emotional question of life in the womb. This is hardly the first presidential campaign to pit an pro-life Republican ticket against pro-choice Democrats. Never before, however, has the difference been so stark.
Obama advocates abortion rights even more sweeping than those enacted under Roe v. Wade. "The first thing I'd do as president," he assured the Planned Parenthood Action Fund last year, "is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." The measure would not only codify Roe, it would eliminate even restrictions on abortion that the Supreme Court has allowed - the federal ban on government funding of abortion, for example, or the law prohibiting partial-birth abortion.
During last month's forum at the Saddleback Church, Obama was asked when "a baby gets human rights." He fudged: "Answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade."
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and her husband Todd Palin hold their baby boy, Trig, in Anchorage, Alaska. Palin's fifth child was born April 18.
But there is nothing hesitant about Obama's abortion stance. As an Illinois lawmaker, he opposed a bill making it clear that premature babies born alive after surviving a failed abortion must be protected and cannot be killed or simply left to die. Even after virtually identical legislation -- the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002 -- passed unanimously in the US House and Senate, Obama continued to oppose the state version. On abortion, no presidential candidate has ever been so extreme.
And when has a Republican ticket ever been so unabashedly pro-life? Senator John McCain, long one of the Senate's reliably pro-life votes, is a father of seven, including an adopted orphan from Bangladesh. His running mate lacks McCain's voting record, yet her bona fides are even more impressive: When Palin and her husband learned last winter that she was carrying a baby with Down syndrome, they never considered not having him. More than 90 percent of pregnant American women in the same position choose abortion. Palin chose life.
"We understand that every innocent life has wonderful potential," she said a few days after Trig Paxson Van Palin was born in April. "I'm looking at him right now, and I see perfection."
Ambiguities may muddle the 2008 campaign, but not when it comes to abortion. The next president and vice president will be the most pro-choice in US history. Or the most pro-life.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)