Abortion: Is a woman's right to choose more important than a fetus' right to live? When is a fetus a human being? Should rape and incest victims be forced to carry pregnancies to term? A candidate's position on abortion, like the Vietnam War in the 1960s, has become the most emotionally charged and divisive issue in the 1984 elections. Correspondent David Grogan interviewed, separately, experts on opposite sides of this rancorous debate.

Dr. John C. Willke, 59, is a Catholic and current president of the National Right to Life Committee, which has some 2,000 local chapters. With his wife, Barbara, a registered nurse, he leads antiabortion seminars that feature recordings of the beating heart of a 2-month-old fetus. The Willkes say their children urged them to write the Handbook on Abortion, which John calls "the Bible of the movement."

Daniel C. Maguire, 53, is a Catholic theologian and a professor of moral theology at Marquette University. His wife, Marjorie, was a student of his, and in 1971 he left the priesthood to marry her. In 1973 she gave birth to a son, Danny, who was afflicted with Hunter's syndrome, an inherited disease that affects the brain and distorts the features. When she became pregnant a second time, the Maguires considered an abortion, but amniocentesis indicated that the child, Tommy, now 8, was not in danger. The experience of raising Danny, who died in agony at the age of 10, profoundly affected his father. As a young priest he'd counseled women not to have abortions. His attitude has gradually changed.

Why has abortion become such an important election issue?

WILLKE: There's nothing happening in our nation today of this significance or magnitude. Almost every third baby conceived in America is killed in abortion; the total body count now exceeds 1.5 million per year. Such violence and the shedding of innocent blood are unexceeded in the history of the world. That's why we in the right-to-life movement call it the silent holocaust.

MAGUIRE: Antiabortion activists envision themselves standing outside another Auschwitz or Dachau, but I see this as an insult to the survivors of the Holocaust. Right-wing conservatives are using their newfound love of embryos to avoid discussing their militarism and elitism. They are covering up their dismantling of civil rights of the born with a concern for the unborn.

John J. O'Connor, the Catholic Archbishop of New York, has said he doesn't see how any Catholic in good conscience can vote for a candidate who is pro-choice. Did he overstep the boundaries separating church and state?

WILLKE: It's interesting that there was no outcry in liberal quarters when the Catholic hierarchy publicly opposed the buildup of nuclear armaments. Why is it that now, suddenly, there are objections when the bishops take a stand on the issue of abortion?

MAGUIRE: Archbishop O'Connor is giving an extreme view and portraying it as the only Catholic position. Although the current Pope has argued that any abortion is wrong, there is within the church a great diversity of legitimate views because the question of when an embryo or fetus becomes a person with a soul has never been settled. In fact through most of history Catholics were forbidden to baptize the product of a miscarriage unless it displayed a human form. In my opinion Archbishop O'Connor is giving a wink-and-nod endorsement to the Republican ticket, and that means he is disobeying the Pope's instructions to stay out of politics.

Long before Geraldine Ferraro accepted the Democratic nomination for Vice-President, several prominent Catholic politicians—including Sen. Ted Kennedy—took a pro-choice position. Why did members of the Catholic hierarchy suddenly take a stand in this election?

WILLKE: I believe that Ferraro, followed by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, threw down the glove at the bishops and they had to react. She said, "I am a good Catholic. I go to church. But I am also pro-choice." Like the bishops, I have a problem with someone making a big point about their Catholic heritage if they don't subscribe to some of the most basic teachings of the church.

MAGUIRE: I cannot dismiss the possibility that the presence of a woman on the Democratic ticket is a threat to some church hierarchs. It is a criticism of the church that a woman could rise to the second highest office in the land, and yet couldn't even stand on the altar. There could be an element of sexism involved.

Is abortion an appropriate area for the government to be involved in?

WILLKE: The Supreme Court has decided that an unborn child is not a legal person and has no civil rights. When we protest, we are told we cannot impose our morality on the mother, because she is the "owner" of the fetus. The Supreme Court took a similar position once before. In 1857 it proclaimed that black people had no legal rights and were the rightful property of slave owners. We don't anticipate a civil war over this issue, but we are certainly trying to get an amendment to the Constitution passed.

MAGUIRE: The government acted well when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973. With the decision, the Court allowed people to act according to the dictates of their own consciences.

Is abortion ever justified?

WILLKE: There is an inalienable value to human life. On very rare occasions we are forced to trade a life for a life. I have never been faced with that situation as a physician, but I accept the view of my colleagues that an abortion may be necessary to prevent the death of the mother. There is no other justification for abortion.

MAGUIRE: Abortion is always tragic, but I see pregnancy as a 20-year condition, rather than just nine months. Sometimes a woman is too poor or too sick to enter that process. I think those who are obsessed with the rights of a fetus tend to ignore the woman and the generally rapacious attitude of men toward sex. I tell my male students that when they enter a woman's body, they may be entering the next century. But at an abortion clinic I recently visited, 90 percent of the men involved in unwanted pregnancies had scorn for condoms.

Is abortion, as several Protestant as well as Catholic legislators have suggested, a litmus test that a political candidate must pass before being allowed to hold a public office?

WILLKE: I believe that a political candidate who is in favor of abortion on demand is actively advocating the dismemberment and killing of every third baby conceived in America. I must look at him or her and say, "You beast. For this terrible thing you have disqualified yourself from holding public office."

MAGUIRE: Absolutely not. The Bible neither condemns nor defends abortion. The litmus test Christians should be applying is what politicians are doing for the poor and neglected in this society.