Ever since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, presidential candidates have been asked to take a position on the issue. Over the last 35 years, candidates often equivocated and tried to dodge efforts to pin them down on the abortion question. The lack of candor was based in understandable political expediency — most voters have strong feelings on one side or the other, and are not easily swayed by argument because those views are closely tied to faith, personal experience and core moral beliefs.

A rare side-by-side comparison of Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama on abortion came last Saturday night at a forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

Sen. McCain scored points with the audience and other conservative Christians whose support he needs to get elected by clearly stating his view that life begins at conception. McCain touted his “25-year pro-life record in the Congress, in the Senate. And as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies.”

Sen. McCain’s candor and clarity is refreshing, especially given that most Americans believe abortion should be legal in most cases. But those who believe abortion should be illegal historically turn out to vote in high percentages. These so-called value voters can and have swayed elections.

If elected, Sen. McCain would likely appoint at least one Supreme Court justice. Though his nominee probably will not be as forthcoming, voters should know that President McCain would select judges who would vote to weaken, if not roll back, the laws allowing abortion.

Sen. Obama was less sharp in his answer to Pastor Warren’s question, probably because he knew he faced an audience not sympathetic to his view on the question. Sen. Obama tried to delineate between theological and scientific perspectives, while conceding the “moral and ethical” nature of the matter.

“But … I am pro-choice,” he said. “I believe in Roe versus Wade. And I come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion but because ultimately I don’t think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways…”

President Obama, then, would nominate judges who respect the 1973 court’s decision that abortion is constitutionally protected under its privacy provisions. In confirmation hearings, those nominees would probably be just as vague on the question as have most judicial nominees over the last three decades.

Though such transparency in the presidential candidates is welcome, the abortion issue should be put into context. The current president favors making abortion illegal again, yet he has risked no political capital to push for that result. And another reason to see abortion as a tangential issue: a poll conducted for Time magazine in July found that 73 percent of voters would still consider voting for a presidential candidate who held a view different than their own on abortion.